Fremont High School graduate Leah Fitzke doesn’t consider herself Republican or Democrat, but she found Sen. Ben Sasse’s commencement speech unfunny.
Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, spoke to the Fremont High graduating class Saturday during a virtual commencement ceremony. He primarily offered quips and tried to make humorous observations about the graduates, high school, psychologists and other matters.
Sasse himself is a graduate of Fremont High and has degrees from Ivy League heavyweights Harvard and Yale. He is running for reelection against Democrat Chris Janicek, who also criticized Sasse’s comments.
Among other things, Sasse congratulated the graduates, not for graduating, but for getting out of bed and “putting on something slightly more formal than sweatpants” to watch the ceremony. He said that high school graduations usually are forgettable and that “a lot of us spend a lot of our lives trying to forget as much about high school as we possibly can.”
“And,” he continued, “there are a whole bunch of people who make a whole bunch of money by just trying to help other people forget high school. They’re called psychologists.” He advised the graduates not to major in psychology in college.
Fitzke, who said she will join the Air Force soon, watched with family members, none of whom laughed, she said.
“I mean, I thought it was kind of, really, hurtful,” she said. The intent seemed to include “tearing me down,” she said. “Why would you say that stuff after 13 years of work we’ve put in?”
The Nebraska Counseling Association criticized Sasse for his comments about psychologists. The association sent Sasse a letter calling his observations “tasteless and demeaning.”
Sasse couldn’t be reached for comment Monday, nor could a staffer to whom The World-Herald was referred by Sasse’s Washington office.
Ryan Hamilton, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party, said Sasse will be reelected to his seat in November.
The counseling association said the senator “showed an alarming lack of sensitivity” toward the graduating seniors. And the association called his comments about psychologists “potshots.”
The group described its role in working with addicts, abused children, victims of sexual assault and people with mental illnesses.
“Mental health isn’t a joke,” said association President-elect Becca Moore of Wood River. “We have a shortage of mental health providers.”
Further, she said, some people are struggling emotionally during this particularly trying time of coronavirus, financial stress and isolation. “We just didn’t find it funny,” she said. “We’ve been working a long time to destigmatize mental health.”
Another new Fremont graduate, Alexis Tolliver, said Sasse “was trying to be light-hearted, but he did so in a very bold manner.” Some people took it literally, she said. “For the most part, I was just baffled as to why that was a graduation speech,” she said.
Tolliver called herself a conservative Republican. She intends to go to Wayne State College as a pre-med student. Both Tolliver and Fitzke graduated with high distinction.
“He’s very blunt in what he says,” Tolliver said. “You can give him that credit.”
Sasse appeared to be unshaven and had his red tie loosened while giving the speech remotely. His comments turned serious when he said this nation must “have a serious reckoning with the thugs in China who let this mess (the virus) spiral out of control by lying about it.”
Hamilton said it’s telling that the Democratic Party “hates Ben Sasse so much they’re defending the Chinese Communist Party.” That’s a losing argument, he said, and Sasse will win reelection.
Sasse said that at least the pandemic would cause the students “to remember your high school graduation.” Nobody else remembers theirs, he said.
Here is our response to @SenSasse graduation speech to FHS. We felt that this speech should have focused on the seniors and their tremendous accomplishments. You can contact Sen. Sasse here: https://t.co/ef0XVRdjBk pic.twitter.com/t7TR8Erzur— Nebraska Counseling Association (@necounseling1) May 18, 2020