Commencement Addresses Delivered by Incumbent U.S. Presidents, 1914-2010: A Historical Analysis
At the last sentence in this part of his speech, Eisenhower appealed to the graduates by using humor. “Liberation” was a well-known term in 1955 because; just a decade earlier, the end of World War II meant liberation from the violence that had plagued several countries for over five years. However, Eisenhower cleverly placed the term into a familiar context from his own past, one that would echo with many from the 1955 graduating class. Although he would turn 65 four months after this speech was given—an age several decades removed from the typical young college graduate—he proved that, even as a high-ranking official, he understood the values of 1955’s young adults. In essence, Eisenhower still felt the excitement of 1915 when imagining what the future would hold. Implicitly, the message was clear to graduates—go out to the world with a youthful excitement for all of the unique possibilities that lie ahead in your life.
In May 1982, Ronald Reagan traveled to his home state of Illinois to deliver the commencement address at his alma mater, Eureka College. Compared to Eisenhower’s 40 year gap between graduation and the delivery of a commencement address, Reagan’s gap was precisely half a century. In fact, Reagan’s gap was the longest period of time for a sitting President to return to their alma mater to deliver a commencement address. Reagan, like Eisenhower, was able to relate to students at graduation. However, Reagan used his rhetorical virtuosity from over fifty years of public speaking experience to magnify his ethos with humor. He remembered aloud: “On one of those occasions, as you've been told, I addressed a graduating class here, ‘'neath the elms,’ and was awarded an honorary degree. And at that time I informed those assembled that while I was grateful for the honor, it added to a feeling of guilt I'd been nursing for 25 years, because I always figured the first degree they gave me was honorary” (Reagan, 1982).
Like Eisenhower, Reagan gave the commencement at his school during a key year when many of his old classmates were participating in reunion activities. Unlike Eisenhower, however, Reagan appeared at his alma mater to give a commencement speech before becoming President. When he was still a Hollywood movie star, Reagan gave Eureka’s commencement speech in 1957 (PBS: American Experience, 2010). While he was not as popular as such A-list Hollywood actors as Clark Gable or Cary Grant in 1957, his appearance was nonetheless memorable for graduates. However, upon assuming the Presidency, he eclipsed his fame as a Hollywood film star and became one of the 1980s most recognizable figures.
Reagan wanted to recall his visit a quarter century prior because he wanted to cross the generational gap for school pride. The “guilt” that he had been nursing for 25 years coincided with the year of his graduation in 1932, as well as his commencement speech from 1957.
Not only was he speaking to the class of 1957, but he was also speaking to a new generation—the class of 1982. For the former group who were likely watching the President speak, his words would elicit an even greater meaning. While the words were slightly different, they carried the same meaning of one of Reagan’s trademarks of humorizing the audience. In this particular instance, it was a special nod to one of the most prevalent types of students on college campuses everywhere—the “underachiever.”
Perhaps the best rhetorical strategy to extend their welcome to a campus would be to tell a clever joke or anecdote to make the audience laugh. One such user of humor was Richard Nixon. Given that Richard Nixon was President for about five-and-a-half years, one would expect him to give about as many addresses as a President that was not in office for a long time. However, Nixon only gave a grand total of six college and university addresses during 1969, 1973 and 1974. However, this small number of addresses makes it fairly simple to find commonalities among them. For Nixon, his intellectual-giftedness, allowed him to be a well-read and capable speaker. As such, finding clever humor to relate to his audience was second-nature to him.
In the opening remarks of his commencement speech at Florida Technological University in June 1973, he remarked: On this particular occasion, I also want to pay my respects to this county, which is Orange County, Florida. I live in Orange County, California. Both have been very good to me during the years that I have been in political life” (Nixon, 1973). Prior to his arrival at Florida Technological University, Nixon did his research on the university. He knew that Florida Technological University’s Orlando home was located in Orange County, Florida. Nixon himself was born in Yorba Linda, California, which is located in California’s own Orange County. Nixon capitalized on this coincidence to humorize his audience. However, one additional, more subtle objective was to relate to his audience. For Nixon, who had never been to the university before, he wanted to feel like welcomed member of the university community. By cleverly mentioning this unique, humorous coincidence, Nixon could feel like an “old friend” returning to the university.
In any commencement address at a college, the speaker’s goal is to rhetorically-encapsulate lessons learned from academia to promote optimism for the future. An incumbent President’s main rhetorical goal when delivering a college commencement address is to build unity. This pre-meditated goal alone proves that the President’s presence, at a specific university during a specific place and time, is by no means an accident. However, even after over 140 addresses since Woodrow Wilson first stood at the podium, each President’s presence at a school is marked by a unique socio-political atmosphere. Each President has responded differently to these circumstances towards building unity.
Paying careful attention to the timing of a President’s appearance reveals subtle patterns that contribute to the overall theme of purposefully-building unity. While the President is aware of many schools’ commemorative events, the sheer number held make it impossible to appear in more than a dozen annually. However, the few selections that the President makes is likely connected to some tenet that they consider important. Examples include, but are not limited to, proposing a policy, justifying a policy and building unity over theological or political differences. Some Presidents like George H.W. Bush will come to a university to commemorate a specific event. When he appeared at the University of Notre Dame in 1992 to kick-off its 150th anniversary celebrations, Bush wanted to channel this excitement into pride for the university. Likewise, when Gerald R. Ford appeared at Penn, he wanted to focus Philadelphia’s excitement as it was preparing to commemorate America’s 200th birthday in nearby Independence Hall.
The President may want to fulfill their annual college commencement obligation by selecting a school based upon their roots. In the past, this has been accomplished in one of three ways—returning to a school as an alumnus, returning to their home state or venturing to a nearby D.C.-area school. Both father and son—George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush—took advantage of the first two strategies. Both Presidents returned to their undergraduate alma mater, Yale University, as well as delivering addresses in their home state of Texas—including UT-Austin and Texas A&M. Similarly, the addresses of two Presidents at Howard University—delivered two decades apart—reveal the noticeable, yet subtle, attitudinal shifts towards race in America.
A President’s rhetorical strategies have often been devised according to the time, place, and socio-political climate of a school. Many Presidents, including John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush, were fond of using humor to connect with their audience. Both Ivy-League-educated men capitalized on college rivalry to build school spirit. Similarly, famous alumni of a given school could be alluded to, evoking the importance of education in their rise to fame. This was accomplished when Gerald R. Ford provided insights into Dwight Eisenhower’s past to build prideful unity for West Point.
Often, if explosive controversy erupts from disunity, Presidents such as Clinton and Obama can be roused to appear at a specific school. When Barack Obama appeared at Notre Dame, it was 95 years in the making for a sitting President to synthesize political stances with religious beliefs in order to build unity. Similarly, Bill Clinton expanded the rhetorical and political aspects of the Presidency during his 1997 UCSD appearance. Not only could a President propose and even justify a policy, but the President could also oppose a policy as well. Although informal rules have been established—appearing at a handful of schools each year, not appealing to one political party, etc.—these rules can be broken all the time. While careful examination of past commencement addresses can reveal subtle and not-so-subtle patterns among timing, the socio-political climate and a President’s personal rhetorical strategies, the future for Presidential rhetorical addresses remains to be seen.
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Figure 1.1: Number of College Commencements Delivered by Each President—December 2011
Source: University of California-Santa Barbara “American Presidency Project”
Figure 1.2: Colleges with the Most Presidential Appearances
Source: University of California-Santa Barbara “American Presidency Project