Kermit The Frog addresses the graduates at Southampton College of...

Kermit The Frog addresses the graduates at Southampton College of Long Island University during commencement exercises Sunday, May 19, 1996. Credit: AP File, 1996

The worst thing that President Barack Obama did in the last couple of weeks had nothing to do with the economy, foreign policy, or the separation of church and state. Instead, he brought down a firestorm by apparently choosing the wrong college at which to give a commencement speech in May.

Why all the fuss?

To recap, Obama drove many students at his alma mater, Columbia College of Columbia University, bananas by agreeing to address the newly minted graduates of Barnard, their all-women sister school across Broadway. Some cynics say he did so merely to pump up his popularity with his female base. Whatever the reason, hell hath no fury like Columbia guys (and more than a few gals) scorned. When news about the speech broke, they lit into their Barnard compatriots with scurrilous online comments. "Ugly, feeble Barnard women" and "we hate you" were among the printable examples.

Such venom is pathetic not just because it is so crude, but because it is so misdirected. While I have no idea what the president is going to say at Barnard, I will wager that it will be both beautifully imparted and almost immediately forgettable.

No slur on Obama, but the days of memorable, even historic, end-of-academic-year speeches are long gone. It's been more than two generations since anyone came even close to aping Winston Churchill announcing the clang of the Iron Curtain (Westminster College, 1946) or George C. Marshall elaborating on his namesake European recovery plan (Harvard, 1947).

With rare exceptions, today's graduation speeches, irrespective of the orator, consist mainly of throwaway sentiments equally trite and hortatory -- e.g., "seize the day," "don't forget to give back," "dare to be different." Most of these phrases could be deployed interchangeably at virtually any institution of higher learning in the United States come springtime.

Last year, The New York Times surveyed 40 graduation speeches given by figures as diverse as Tom Hanks, Kofi Annan, Michael Bloomberg, Amy Poehler, Toni Morrison, Tom Brokaw and Jonathan Franzen. Among the words they used most often were "service"(or "responsibility"), "love" (or "passion"), "challenge" (or "opportunity"), and "career" (or "job" or "work"). This is the verbal equivalent of painting by numbers.

The most original graduation offering of the last generation wasn't a pronouncement from the podium at all. It was a column published in 1997 by Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune. Composed as a humorous "Guide to Life for Graduates," it urged students to "Wear sunscreen," "Read the directions, even if you don't follow them," and "Be kind to your knees. You'll miss them when they're gone."

Many people believed this was a bona fide valedictory; an urban legend even held that Kurt Vonnegut delivered it at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That's not surprising. Anyone who ever sat through typical cap-and-gown droning surely wanted to believe that such delightful musings were still possible.

Columbia students who are upset that their president and fellow alumnus won't be addressing them on the happiest day of their young lives might also want to consider that -- surprise, surprise! -- a graduation speaker is often roped in primarily on the basis of sheer star quality and probable degree of press coverage. When Kermit the Frog held forth in a mortarboard at Southampton College in 1996, or Robert Redford sent off the seniors at Bard College in 2004, you could be pretty sure that it was about the singer, not the song.

And so, members of the Columbia College class of 2012 -- as well as those elsewhere who had hoped for Bill Gates or Meryl Streep and not the state attorney general -- don't brood too much. Sure, it's nice to have graduation-day bragging rights. But in the end, the four years that led up to your degree don't culminate with a few hoary words of wisdom. There are more important things to worry about. Like paying off your student loans.