Ben Bowling’s valedictorian speech was one of the rare instances where electoral polling numbers can help us understand humor.
The 18-year-old is valedictorian of Kentucky’s Bell County High School Class of 2018, about 80 miles north of Knoxville, Tennessee. The closest a 21st-century Democratic presidential candidate has come to winning the hearts and minds of the people there was in 2004, when John F. Kerry got 39 percent of people to punch a ticket for him.
Every other race has been (more of) a landslide by whoever happened to be on the Republican side of the ballot: nearly 71 percent for John McCain in 2008, 76 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012, and an overwhelming 82 percent for President Donald Trump in 2016.
On Saturday, Bowling was slated to give a speech before his cap-and-gown-wearing peers and their families, as he noted in one fourth-wall breaking segment.
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“This is the part of my speech where I share some inspirational quotes I found on Google,” Bowling said, before doling out the best the search engine could find:
“‘Don’t just get involved. Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table.’ — Donald J. Trump.”
The crowd went wild. The applause nearly drowned out Bowling’s next statement: “Just kidding. That was Barack Obama.”
The applause died down to silence. Someone booed.
But secretly, a few people in the audience were chuckling at the partisan bait-and-switch.
“Y’all, no lie — the valedictorian just quoted Trump and everyone cheered … then he told us that it was actually an Obama quote. Best part of the day. I’m rolling,” tweeted Alisha Russell, one of the people in the audience, according to The Louisville Courier-Journal.
And the joke’s deflating effect was not lost on the speaker, who rolled onto his next quote in silence.
“The crowd erupted in applause and before they could even finish clapping I said I was kidding, and the applause quickly died,” Bowling later told the newspaper. “I just thought it was a really good quote. Most people wouldn’t like it if I used it, so (I) thought I’d use Donald Trump’s name. It is southeastern Kentucky after all.”
The quote he found on Google was a remark Obama made at a commencement ceremony in 2012.
Bowling’s speech in that corner of the Bluegrass State isn’t the only time Trump-centric politics have invaded a graduation ceremony.
Beginning six months after Trump was elected president, commencement exercise after commencement exercise became a battleground for promoting or protesting the president’s policies.
In May 2017, John Cornyn, a Republican senator from Texas who was then on Trump’s shortlist to lead the FBI, was dropped as commencement speaker at the historically black Texas Southern University. In an online petition, students said Cornyn’s views were racist and antithetical to the beliefs of many of the students there. And they threatened to boycott their own graduation.
Students at Bethune-Cookman also threatened to boycott Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ commencement address, but administrators did not act on their petitions. Instead, the students booed and turned their backs on DeVos and administrators. Ultimately, the university’s president interrupted the speech and told students, “If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you.”
That didn’t happen to Bowling in Kentucky. He finished his speech, snapped some graduation pictures and received no major backlash from administrators, peers or parents — and is looking forward to going to the University of Kentucky later this year.
“I’m really excited to go to college,” Bowling told the Courier-Journal later. “There’s more freedom in college and there’s also way more places to eat in Lexington.”