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 the valedictorian of the 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 of Bell County, Kentucky, was in 2004, when John F. Kerry got 39 percent of people there 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, according to the state’s board of elections. Mitt Romney got 76 percent in 2012, and Donald Trump received an overwhelming 82 percent of Bell County’s votes 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.
“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, according to a video Bowling shared with the Louisville Courier-Journal. Their applause for the commander in chief nearly drowned out Bowling’s next statement: “Just kidding. That was Barack Obama.”
The applause died down to silence.
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 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.”
Bowling could not immediately be reached for comment.
The quote he found on Google was a remark Obama made at a commencement ceremony in 2012. Speaking to graduates of Barnard College in New York, he said “now more than ever, America needs what you, the Class of 2012, has to offer.”
“After decades of slow, steady, extraordinary progress, you are now poised to make this the century where women shape not only their own destiny but the destiny of this nation and of this world.
“But how far your leadership takes this country, how far it takes this world – well, that will be up to you. You’ve got to want it. It will not be handed to you. And as someone who wants that future – that better future – for you, and for Malia and Sasha, as somebody who’s had the good fortune of being the husband and the father and the son of some strong, remarkable women, allow me to offer just a few pieces of advice. That’s obligatory. (Laughter.) Bear with me.
“My first piece of advice is this: Don’t just get involved. Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table.”
Bowling’s speech in that corner of the Bluegrass State isn’t the only time Trump-centric politics have invaded a commencement exercise.
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 had threatened to boycott their own graduation.
Students at Bethune-Cookman had also threatened to boycott Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s 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 DeVos’s 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.”