Sen. Ben Sasse, in an online commencement address Saturday for Fremont High School, delivered a talk that was part attempted stand-up comedy, including shots at psychologists and students’ fitness, and part a scalding indictment of China over the coronavirus pandemic.
It drew sharp criticism from a Fremont school board member, who called on Sasse to apologize, and from Sasse’s Democratic opponent in the November election. The school district issued a statement saying it wasn’t responsible for the comments. Sasse’s spokesman said Sunday that it was all a joke and that students are mature enough to hear the truth about China.
An unshaven Sasse, wearing a loosened red tie and white shirt, told students they would be rare among high school graduates in that they would remember their commencement ceremony because of this year’s odd circumstances.
A couple of the attempted jokes: He said that in life, the graduates would at times be asked to climb ropes. “If you don’t get that joke, talk to your mom and dad. Back in the day when we were a lot fitter than you people are, we used to have to climb ropes all the way up to the ceiling of the gym.”
Of psychologists, the Nebraska Republican said, “95% of all gainfully employed psychologists ... their job is really just to help people forget high school,” adding, “do not, if you’re headed to college, do not, major in psychology. That part’s not a joke.”
In a pretty dramatic tone shift, Sasse said 2020 graduates at their future reunions would talk about “that time when China started a big global pandemic that created the worst public health crisis in over a century and brought the economy to its knees and we had to stay home and everybody was hoarding toilet paper.”
He touched on the Netflix “Tiger King” documentary and murder hornets, and noted that “everybody named Jeremy is the worst.”
Except for maybe China. “We’re going to have to have a serious reckoning with the thugs in China who let this mess spiral out of control by lying about it.”
“Your generation is going to have a big calling. You’re going to have to deal with the consequences of all this, and you’re entering adulthood during an incredibly disruptive time.”
Fremont school board member Michael Petersen, who has endorsed Sasse’s Democratic opponent, was angered. On his public Facebook page, Petersen congratulated the Class of 2020 and said, “You deserved better than the graduation remarks from Senator Ben Sasse. The racism, implying that our graduates are fat and lazy, disparaging teachers, and attacking the mental health profession are despicable.” He told Sasse in the post, “You owe the graduating students of Fremont High an apology.”
Sasse is a 1990 Fremont High grad and also was president of Midland University there before running for the Senate. His first term is ending, and he will square off against Omaha Democrat Chris Janicek in November’s general election.
Janicek blasted the speech in a statement Sunday:
“It’s hard for me to believe that a U.S. senator would make remarks like he did in that speech,” said Janicek. “Ridiculing mental health care specialists, suggesting that the graduates are lazy slackers and using the platform to blame China for the pandemic we have now is beyond reprehensible.”
Sasse spokesman James Wegmann responded to the criticism Sunday.
“Like he said in the video greeting, Ben’s proud of each of the graduates — and he believes their generation is tough enough to help lead us through the bumpy economic times ahead,” Wegmann’s statement said. “It’s ridiculous that some politically addicted folks are complaining about Ben calling out China in a joke. He’s said this for months, because it’s true: The Chinese Communist Party’s coronavirus coverup wasted time that could have contained the spread — those lies cost innocent lives in China and around the world. Pretending graduates are too fragile to hear the truth is silly.”
The Fremont Public Schools in a statement Sunday evening disavowed responsibility for Sasse’s comments.
“The district does not edit or censor guest speakers. We have received feedback on parts of the ceremony and would like to share some information for clarity in regard to the speeches by our guests. The words spoken belong to the individual that said them, not the school district,” said the statement from Superintendent Mark Shepard and school board President Sandi Proskovec.
“Including them as part of the ceremony does not endorse the individual, the content of the speech or the interpretations of what was provided. We encourage individuals with concerns to reach out to the individual directly. They are the only ones who can accurately interpret what was intended.”