Commencement Rhetoric of Ann Richards Commencement Address Rhetoric of Ann Richards

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Commencement Address Rhetoric of Ann Richards:

Narrative Humor as Resistance and Challenge


Although epideictic oratory has a long and storied past, the study of the rhetoric of commencement speaking has received limited attention since the ritualistic nature of this form of public address is characterized as formulaic and often lacking in significance. This essay challenges those assumptions through an analysis of two commencement addresses delivered by former Texas Governor Ann Richards: one delivered in 1995 at Mount Holyoke and one of the last public addresses Richards delivered in December, 2005 at the University of Texas, Austin. Richards’ use of narrative to establish a connection with her audience and her skillful intertwining of narrative with a call for action to become involved in public service elevates these two addresses beyond the limited expectations the general public has come to hold for this genre.

Commencement Address Rhetoric of Ann Richards:

Narrative Humor as Resistance and Challenge

In eulogizing former Texas governor Ann Richards, President Bill Clinton stated: “Winning for Ann Richards was not defined entirely . . . by who got the most votes. It was about what you did with your life” (“Clinton Praises,” 2006). Clinton went on to relate an anecdote about a function attended by Richards and comedians Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, stating that may have been the only time that Crystal and Williams found themselves the second and third funniest people in the room. A frequent description in the many eulogies of Richards include some reference to her wit (Beilue, 2006; Briscoe, 2006; “Clinton Praises,” 2006; Ivins, 2006; “Governor Orders, 2006; Selby, 2006; Frost, 2006; Ratcliffe, 2006; Shannon, 2006). Rhetorical scholars Martin (2004) and Dow and Tonn (1993) have analyzed Richards’ use of humor in her best known speech, the 1988 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address, as well as other policy addresses. This study focuses on two college commencement addresses Richards delivered following her term as Texas Governor: the 1995 Commencement Address at Mount Holyoke College and the 2005 Commencement Address at the University of Texas, Austin. While her use of humor is the most frequently cited characteristic of her public rhetoric (Martin, 2004; Dow & Tonn, 1993; DeFrancisco & Jensen, 1994; Anderson & Sheeler, 2005; Selby, 2006), this analysis investigates Richards’ use of narrative humor as a means of resistance and challenge in college commencement addresses. Additionally, this essay seeks to contextualize these commencement addresses within the category of epideictic rhetoric and as ritual communication.
Commencement Speeches

Speaking at Mississippi State University’s summer commencement in 1992, best selling author, John Grisham asserted that commencement speakers fall into three categories:

First, you have Peace Corps speeches in which the speaker attempts to motivate you . . . to forsake jobs and money and credit cards and . . . teach starving people how to grow food. Second, you have the good citizen speech in which the speaker attempts to motivate you to become productive, vote properly, run for office, enjoy paying taxes and in general build a new society . . . Third, you have the current affairs speech in which a distinguished politician or statesman or diplomat talks about the current mess in world politics and what we should do to solve the problems . . . . (Grisham, 1992)

Nichols (2006) describes the college commencement address as “low point of an otherwise auspicious occasion” (p. 1).

Obviously these views of commencement addresses are at odds with the classical view of epideictic rhetoric. Jasinski (2001) explains that “for Aristotle, the various . . . types of epideictic oratory could be collected under one broad generic heading” (p. 210) because they shared three characteristics: 1) association with some ceremonial occasion, 2) featuring a display of the speaker’s oratorical skills, and 3) focusing in some way on the topics of blame or praise. A strict interpretation of what constitutes epideictic rhetoric in the classical sense was urged by Chase (1961) who maintained: “Epideictic must remain . . . oratory that is dominated by either praise or blame” (p. 300). Aristotle in Book 1, Chapter 3 of On Rhetoric, delineated three categories of rhetoric: symbouleutikon [deliberative], dikaniknon [judicial], and epideiktikon [demonstrative]. Olbrects-Tyteca and Perelman (1969) expanded the view of epideictic oratory by claiming that it “forms a central part of the art of persuasion” (p. 49) “results in its being practised [sic] by those who, in a society, defend the traditional and accepted values” (p. 51). Celeste Condit (1985) extends the praise/blame function that classical rhetoricians assigned to epideictic oratory, outlining the three functions that define the epideictic experience for speakers and audiences: definition/understanding, shaping and sharing of community, and display/entertainment. She includes “commencement addresses” as “central to the set” of epideictic speeches (p. 287):

At commencements . . . the audience seeks an understanding of the value of what has been completed and a hint at how they might judge what is to come. The commencement speaker has earned the right to define the meaning of the past experience and thereby to wield the power of emphasizing the values and meaning in the paths opened for the future. (p. 288)

Condit notes: “In giving a speaker the right to shape the definition of community, the audience gives the speaker the right to select certain values, stories, and persons from the shared heritage and to promote them over others” (p. 289).

Scholars have examined commencement address from a variety of perspectives. Peter Magolda (2003) conducted an anthropological study of college commencement as a campus ritual, one that transmits cultural norms. His observations about the commencement speaker’s address that he observed included:

The speaker’s introductory remarks are peppered with predictable graduation themes: congratulations . . . opportunities await you . . . work hard . . .the world is a complicated place to live in . . . Ten minutes into the address, it takes an unusual turn as an avant-garde musical selection fills the arena. (p. 785)

Magolda concludes: “This keynote speaker’s performance is a striking contrast to the [university] president’s stand-up comedy monologue. Clearly the latter knows the audience better than the former” (p. 785).

Markella Rutherford (2004) conducted a content analysis of 171 commencement address given throughout the twentieth century at 87 different colleges and universities. Contrary to what might be expected in this age driven by celebrity, Rutherford found that the largest proportion (52) of the speakers were academics. The next largest category was political official (33), followed by business professional (24), and journalists (18). This led her to observe “commencement speeches largely tend to reflect the general cultural outlook of colleges and universities” (p. 592). Rutherford was particularly interested in the “rhetoric of choice” and noted that the 24 female speakers in the sample were “more than twice as likely to include choice as either a prevalent idea or theme of their speeches” (p. 595). She concludes: “This analysis of commencement speeches reveals that the rhetoric of individual choice did become increasingly ritualized during the twentieth century” (p. 605). Contrast Rutherford’s study with Bennett’s (1938) analysis of commencement speeches of 1937 and 1938. Bennett asserted: “The one distinctive and significant trend of available college commencement addresses of 1937 and 1938 was the insistence of practically all speakers that the graduate concern himself [sic] with the future of American democracy (p. 541). In both of these analyses, the context of the commencement speeches played an important role in the content and the ritual of commencement, and although as noted by Magolda (2003), commencement ceremonies are “commonplace and ingrained in the fabric of the campus culture” (p. 779), commencement rhetoric is a significant and important ritual worthy of study.

Nichols (2006) situates the eight commencement addresses delivered by well known Southern authors within the historical setting in which the addresses were delivered, as well as within the written works of the authors. Her study included commencement speeches given by W.J. Cash, William Faulkner, Wendell Berry, Will D. Campbell, Lee Smith, Clyde Edgerton, Maya Angelou, and Fred Chappell. Nichols concludes that these Southern writers depart from “conventional platitudes and pieties: often associated with commencement address. Rather, she asserts that these speakers: 1) trace themes already apparent in their written work, 2) abstain from predicting the future and instead interpret the past, 3) identify with their audiences by using inclusive language (i.e., “we”), and 4) allude to a bleak future facing the graduate but are “hopeful realists” (pp.145-147). Perhaps these “hopeful realists” represent what Rutherford (2004) identifies as having “misgivings about the effects of individualized morality upon the common good” (p. 605).

Youra and Koring (2002) acknowledge the influence of European commencement practices on those of colonial America, but assert: “Commencement speaking as it commonly occurs in America is purely an American creation” (p. 16). Contemporary commencement speeches may reflect the “platform speech” in which a platform for change is presented or they may fall into the category of the “world view speech” in which a political, social, or economic problem is described, along with “steps the graduates may take to remedy the problem” (p. 28). Because of the public nature of commencement, the commencement speaker’s audience is enlarged since the speech can be read and heard across the world through the media of press, television and internet (p. 29). Youra and Koring also note: “Commencement is the only one [forms of ceremonial rhetoric] that deprecates itself,” with commencement speakers “regularly mock themselves, asking why they have been chosen to address the graduates and assuming that the audience will be bored to tears” (p. 33).

The transformative power of commencement ceremonies is noted by Manning (2000) in her study of rituals in higher education: “There is something magical and mystical about rituals” (p. 1). She explains: “Secular ceremony can present imperceptible values more objectively in such a way that they become more believable, less questioned, and more resistant to modification” (p. 46). Moore and Meyerhoff (1977) discuss secular ceremonies in industrial societies and include “graduation” as a “collective ceremony . . . that usually has a statable purpose, but one that invariably alludes to more than it says and has many meanings at once” (p. 5). When viewed as a secular ritual graduation and commencement exercises fulfill the definition of ritual provided by Myerhoff (1977) as “an act or actions intentionally conducted by a group of people employing one or more symbols in a repetitive, formal, precise, highly stylized fashion” (p, 199). She goes on to explain “the most salient characteristic of ritual is its function as a frame” (p. 200) and that “rituals not only fuse disparate elements but they also make assertions, claims that are at the same time denials of unacceptable realities” (p. 214), concluding “rituals are drams of persuasion” (p. 222). Youra and Koring (2002) in discussing the different genres of epideictic rhetoric state that “the commencement address conforms most closely to Aristotle’s observation that such speeches exist in the past, the present, and the future” (p. 33) and conclude “the commencement address uniquely brings together and transcends the temporal. It brings together and transcends the narrowly political and the universally philosophical” (p. 34).

The Rhetoric of Ann Richards

Ann Richards, the second woman to be elected governor of Texas, has been described as “the feminist groundbreaker with a whip-quick wit” (Selby, 2006), “political leader of great vision” (Richards, 1995), “recovering alcoholic, divorced, white-haired, rural grandmother” (Martin, 2004), Southern storyteller (DeFrancisco & Jensen, 1994), the Thorny Rose of Texas (Shropshire & Shaefer, 1994), transformational and transactional (Tolleson-Rinehart & Stanley, 1994). Feminine communication style has been explored by Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles (1996), Dow and Tonn (1993), and Martin (2004). In each case the rhetoric of Governor Ann Richards is the example used. Although Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles’ main focus is the construction of presidential image in 5 presidential campaign films, they use the example of Richards to discuss a potential shift in public discourse to a more feminist orientation. Dow and Tonn (1993) identify “three vital equations” in Ann Richards’ rhetoric: 1) reliance on concrete examples and anecdotes, 2) use of self-disclosure and sharing of emotion, and 3) a rhetor audience relationship based on nurturing principles (p. 298). Further, Dow and Tonn claim that rhetoric, such as Richards’, “demonstrates that critics must revise paradigms that view female or feminist rhetorical action simply in terms of its adaptation . . . and more in terms of it attempts to offer alternatives to patriarchal modes of thought and reasoning” (p. 299). Martin’s work extends the discussion about Richards’ rhetoric, offering “insights for political women using humor” and suggests that Richards’ rhetoric “demonstrates one way women can challenge gender expectations” and “how political women can use humor as a multifaceted rhetorical tool” (p. 286). Specifically, Martin concludes that Richards uses incongruity humor, self-deprecating humor, as well as superiority humor that effectively violates the masculine norm, stating: “Richards’ real strength is her ability to relax her audience with laughter, talk ‘straight talk’, and blend the right combination of strength and caring to get her message heard’ (p. 286).

Richards provides her own insight about humor. Writing in her memoir, Straight from the Heart, My Life in Politics and Other Important Places, she states:

I was always worried because there is a general feeling that if you are funny you’re not serious. People don’t know how many brain cells it takes to be funny. Humor is a powerful tool. It clears the air. Once you laugh, your mind opens and then you are able to hear the other things that are being said to you. (Richards and Knobler, 1989)

In eulogizing Richards, Selby (2006) quotes the words Richards said when embarking on her 12-years as a statewide official: “I want it to be easier for women to get involved in politics. I want them to think of politics and public service as a good place for them. . . and the way they are going to do that is to say ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’” In many ways, Ann Richards could be called the poster child for a feminine communication style. She broke gender barriers with her own unique blend of humor and narrative and immortalized quips (“Poor George. . .he was born with a silver foot in his mouth”) that continue to live in the public memory.

However, with the loss of the 1994 gubernatorial campaign to “Poor George’s” son, George W. Bush, Richards retired from public service to serve as an adviser at the Washington law firm of Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson & Hand. The commencement speeches that I analyze serve as bookends of Richards’ public speaking, following her career in public service: the Mount Holyoke Commencement Address in 1995 and the University of Texas-Austin Convocation Address of 2005.

Mount Holyoke Address

Mount Holyoke College, located in South Hadley, MA, is a highly selective, nondenominational residential liberal arts college for women with an enrollment of 2100 students. The campus website describes the college as “the first of the Seven Sisters—the female equivalent of the once predominately male Ivy League” and was founded in 1837 by chemist and educator Mary Lyon (About Mount Holyoke, 2007). Ann Richards delivered the Mount Holyoke Commencement Address on Sunday, May 28, 1995 in the Richard Glenn Gettell Amphitheatre. Prior to her address to the 439 graduates, Richards was presented an honorary Doctor of Laws.

The “three vital equations” identified by Dow and Tonn (1993) in Richards’ political speeches are also present in the Mount Holyoke Commencement Address: 1) Richards uses concrete examples from her own lived experience, 2) Richards self-discloses, relating a story about her mother, and 3) creates a nurturing relationship with her mostly female audience. Additionally, within the ritual setting of commencement, Richards adds five rules for graduates to live by. First, I discuss examples of the “three vital equations” and then extend the discussion of feminine communication style to include the use of narrative as resistance and challenge.

Concrete Examples. Richards began her commencement address with a direct reference to the audience:

I want to salute the forethought of the architects of this amphitheatre. It was so nice that they realized that I needed to be in the shade and you needed to be in the sun. And because of our juxtaposition, I’ll be mercifully brief. (Richards, 1995)

This quip was probably not pre-planned, but demonstrates how Richards adapts to her physical surroundings in a way that provokes laughter.

Self-Disclosure. Richards relies on her trademark self-deprecatory humor as she expresses appreciation for the honorary doctorate: “I think I deserve this honorary degree. . .I was married to a lawyer for 30 years, so I earned it.” Richards acknowledges the part her friend Jane Hickie had in the invitation to speak to the graduating class:

When their 25th college reunion approaches, most people get new wardrobes, or they rent expensive cars, or visit the plastic surgeon for one last skirmish trying to deal with that war against gravity. Jane has made do with bringing along her old friend. . .

Richard’s’ self-disclosure creates a conversational connection with her audience.

Creates a Nurturing Relationship with Audience. Facing a mostly female audience, Richards makes a connection with her audience through her use of inclusive language, creating a sense of empowerment as she urges:

Truly that is all we have ever been after. . . an honest chance to show what we can do. . . .with more of us running for and winning public office, we are seeing fundamental changes in the public perception of women in public service. We are at an awkward and rather wonderful stage where people invest us with remarkable attributes. They believe we are more honest, and less likely to protect the status quo. . .

In addition to the “three vital equations,” Richards’ use of narrative had a deliberative function.

Narrative as Resistance and Challenge. Walter Fisher (1984) reminded us that “the narrative paradigm challenges the notions that human communication. . . must be an argumentative form” and that “human communication should be viewed as historical as well as situational, as stories competing with other stories constituted by good reasons” (p. 2). Jasinski (2001) identifies four ways in which narratives function rhetorically: as a way for humans to organize various aspects of their existence, to shape or constitute a person’s or culture’s experience of time, to shape or constitute political community and culture, and to shape a culture’s language including its key terms of value, motive, understanding and desire (pp. 392-400). Women’s personal narratives, are defined by Taylor (1990) as “oral stories told by women about our own experiences” (p. 21). Taylor cites the work of Kristin Langellier who has noted that women’s narratives differ from dominant models of storytelling. Langellier states that women’s narratives may not be “tellable” according to dominant expectations and tend to focus on commonplace events that may be of more emotional than dramatic interest. Women’s stories may be non-linear. Their stories are often collaborative, stories told as a group rather than as individuals. The “point of the story” may be used for the purpose of self-sharing rather than self-enhancement, and indeed, these personal narratives may not “make a point.” Lastly, women’s stories may be told only to other women in private, rather than in public settings (pp. 21-22). It can be argued that Ann Richards defies these characteristics of women storytellers. However, it appears that what Richards has accomplished is transferring the qualities of personal narrative from the private to the public sphere. The “point of the stories” in her commencement speeches is not as important as their support for her overall thesis. The narratives that she has chosen vary from those that result in laughter to those that call forth a deeper, internal response.

Anderson and Sheeler (2005) note in their analysis of Richards’ rhetoric as Texas governor that “Storytelling has an identity-defining and community-building function, identifying the teller as a part of the group and validating the nature of the community at large, in this case as a Texan validating the Lone Star mystique” (p. 50). They conclude: “Not only did Richards holler, but she spun a yarn with the best of any Texas storyteller and in the process validated what it meant to be Texan” (p. 51). Their analysis also points out that “Richards used narrative to emphasize the diversity of the new Texas” (p. 68). Her case, according to Anderson and Sheeler, “demonstrates how other political women operating from a liberal frame may secure power in a weak political structure by relying on the rhetorical resources at their disposal”(p. 45). Her “unruly woman” image which included “joking, storytelling, quips, high visibility, and general refusal to be contained by traditional gender roles” helped her negotiate and overcome rhetorical challenges (pp. 45-46). This reliance on narrative continued in her public address following her term as governor.

Ann Richards’ choice of narratives not only strengthens the rhetor/audience relationship, but also serves as a means of resistance and challenge. In the Mount Holyoke address, Richards relied on narratives that featured women as the primary subjects. Richards’ central theme was “not that women are better than men. . . but that we are different” and that the graduates not “get caught up in the political rhetoric” but rather choose to “live with the reality of service.” The narratives Richards uses to support her thesis are both personal and humorous. She uses the example of the first woman governor of Texas, “Ma” Ferguson:

I was born the same year that she took office the last time she was elected. But what’s important for me to tell you about Ma, was her gaining undying notoriety when there was a big issue in Texas and that was whether or not children were going to be punished for speaking Spanish in the public schools. When Ma was asked what she thought about the issue, she said, ‘If the English language was good enough for Jesus Christ, it was good enough for the school children of Texas.’ I tell you that so that you know that we have learned something and made progress in Texas in the last 50 or so years.

She follows this narrative with her account of the visit of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth to Houston and Prince Phillip’s comment about the number of female mayors present at the gathering—“I say it looks rather like a matriarchy.” Richards quickly tells her audience: “Texas is nowhere near a state of matriarchy—which is fine, because matriarchy is not what we are all after.” To Richards, a society where one gender or one race or one privileged background” is weighted in favor over another serves no one well.

In her use of narrative, Richards relies on a practice associated with Jewish storytelling. Storyteller Peninnah Schram (1987) relates the story of the Dubner Maggid who was questioned by a student: “Rabbi, tell me, how do you always know the right story to explain the subject being discussed?” The Maggid answers the question by telling a story and then turns to the student and says: “I don’t always know the right story for the subject being discussed. What I do is read many stories and listen to many stories. . . .Then when I find a story I want to tell, I introduce the subject that leads me into telling the perfect story” (pp. 4-5). Richards uses a similar technique but seems to have the topic firmly in mind that she wishes her stories to illustrate; she relates a narrative, allowing the story to speak for itself, and then ties that story to her overall thesis.

In the case of the Mount Holyoke address, Richards uses four major narratives: 1) the Ma Ferguson narrative, 2) the Queen Elizabeth narrative, 3) the narrative of her grandmother who was not allowed to vote in the state of Texas, and 4) the allusion to the writing of Virginia Woolf (“We too can lead the House, can mount those steps and pass in and out of those doors.. . . But we must ask ourselves, on what terms shall we join the procession?”). In analyzing the progression of the narratives, Richards has followed what storyteller Elizabeth Ellis (1983) has called the “Ha-Ha to the “Amen” sequence. The sequence begins with funny stories (Ha-Ha), proceeds next to stories with a plot twist (Aha), then comes the quiet, deep stories (Ahhh), and then ends with those stories that confirm our best hopes for humanity and the future (Amen)

University of Texas Commencement Address

The site of Richards’ 2006 UT-Austin Convocation Address—the Frank Erwin Center—would less than ten months later be the site for a public memorial to her as thousands gathered for the memorial service that included eulogies by Senator Hillary Clinton, columnist Liz Smith, former San Antonio mayor and U.S. Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros, former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, and granddaughter Lilly Adams (AP Release, 2006). The memorial service audience of some 3,800 people gave loud cheers throughout a video tribute, also reminiscent of December 9, 2006 when Richards addressed the fall graduates of the College of Liberal Arts.

The University of Texas, Austin, website describes the university as the largest institution of the University of Texas System and as a major research university home to more than 48,000 students, 2,700 faculty and 19,000 staff members (About UT, 2007). Richards had a long association with UT-Austin, having earned her teacher certification there. UT-Austin was also the place where Richards became politically active. At the time she spoke on December 9, 2005, Richards was serving as an instructor for the university, teaching a course on women’s leadership. Richards spoke at the Convocation of the College of Liberal Arts, one of 12 convocations held in the fall of 2005 since fall graduation activities did not include a university wide commencement ceremony (Former Texas governor, 2005). Abolmaali (2005) describes Richards as “the University’s first choice to speak at the fall commencement.” Richards would receive the diagnosis of esophageal cancer just four months after delivering the UT-Austin convocation address, but on that day in December, 2005, Richards’ focus was on her message to the graduates seated in the Frank C. Erwin Center. She explained to a reporter for the campus newspaper the reason that she chose to use the narrative about mine workers in Appalachia in her convocation address: “I chose the story of the mines because it so exemplifies the mystery of why human beings exploit and take advantage of one another” (Abolmaali, 2005).

Richards’ understanding of context and using that to her advantage was evident in her political speaking during her term as Texas Governor. Anderson and Sheeler (2005) note that “political power is situated within particular contexts. . . Men as well as women can control their political identity more effectively if they respond to the constraints of place and mine their geographic and ideological locations for useful metaphors and narratives” (p. 197). Jamieson’s (1995) study of women and leadership notes that “storytelling has been a form open to and rewarded in women . . . a woman telling a story is, so to speak, in a traditional sphere. . . For this reason, as a woman moves into a place traditionally identified as male territory, she can use narrative more effectively than other available means of persuasion”(p. 195). The commencement ritual is by and large still a “male territory.” Of the 171 commencement speeches (which included both public and private colleges, women’s colleges, military schools, and historically black colleges) sampled in her study, Rutherford (2004) emphasized that only twenty-four of those speakers were women (p. 593). Of the twelve convocations happening at the 2005 UT-Austin Fall Commencement, only four featured woman speakers (Inside OnCampus, 2005),

Creating a Nurturing Relationship with the UT Audience. Richards’s UT-Austin Convocation Address placed her in a context in which she was right at home. Known as a Lady Longhorns fan, Richards already had an established connection with her audience and with the university (Anderson and Sheeler, 2004, p. 57). Richard Lariviere, who was Dean of the UT-Austin College of Fine Arts commented about the speech: “It was a great speech, very moving and very appropriate, and from the look on the students’ faces they were riveted by the speech” (Abolmaali, 2005). One of the graduating students, Jessica Peters’ reaction to the speech supports Lariviere’s observation: “I was really surprised that she was such a comedian, but it’s good that she brought us a serious message” (Abolmaali, 2005).

Linking the Mother Jones Narrative to Her Call for Action. That “serious message,” unlike her remarks at Mount Holyoke did not spring from Richards’ own personal experiences, but rather Richards chose to use the narrative about Mother Jones and her labor organizational efforts in the company towns of Appalachia. Again, the strategy employed by Richards suggests that the narrative about Mother Jones served as a means of resistance and challenge. After relating an incident from Mother Jones’ life in which she was stopped by “company thugs” in the town of Monongahela and “pulled out a .38 special pistol and told them to turn her horse loose—and they sure did,” Richards connects the narrative to the audience:

And why would I be telling you about a bunch of people who lived long ago, some like Mother Jones, who lived more than 100 years ago? I chose the story of the mines because it so exemplifies the mystery of why human beings exploit and take advantage of each other. I wish it were different, but it isn’t any different today than it was in the mountains of Appalachia 135 years ago. (Richards, 2005, p. 2)

After wining her audience’s attention with the Mother Jones’ narrative, Richards then moves to what Grisham (1992) would probably classify as the “good citizen” speech. She urges: “We whine and complain about the potholes left unfilled or the electric blackout and it is all the government’s fault. But the reality is, the government can be our benefactor and our protector from those that would take advantage of our human condition and human frailty” (Richards, 2005, p. 3). Richards goes on to create a vision of the future using repetition:

Because of you, our courts will protect our citizens and enforce the law. Because of you, health care will reach those most in need. Because of you, the state of the union will be told truthfully and the news will be reported fairly. Because of you, children will read and write and learn. Because of you, the future of America can be better. (Richards, 2005, p. 3)

As she concludes her address, Richards is reflective about “we older folks,” noting that “our choice of leaders, our commitment to participate . ..have not always been the best” (Richards, 2005, p. 4), ending with the challenge: “You are the Mother Joneses of today—or if you want to, you can be” (p. 4)

Unlike the Mount Holyoke Address in which Richards uses several narratives, in the UT Address she chose to use the single narrative of Mother Jones. She ties the story of Mother Jones and Appalachia to the present day to make the claim “that is why good government run by good people is so essential to the well-being of democracy” (p. 2), using the narrative to introduce her call for action.


Though dismissed by many, the rhetoric of commencement speeches and the important part they play in the ritual of graduation is worthy of study. My analysis has focused on two commencement addresses that serve as book-ends for the public speaking of Ann Richards following her term as Governor of Texas and 9 months before her untimely death in September, 2006. Her trademark use of narrative is evident in these two addresses and I argue tends to offer challenge and resistance to expectations we have for the ritual of commencement. Richards weaves narrative humor into a persuasive message that makes the content of her address different from what has traditionally been classified as epideictic. Richards is able to take what is “magical” and “mystical” about commencement rituals and make them something more.


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