Commencement Addresses Delivered by Incumbent U.S. Presidents, 1914-2010: A Historical Analysis

By Alexander E. Hopkins
2013, Vol. 5 No. 06 | pg. 2/10 |

One of the unwritten rules of commencement addresses among Presidents has been to begin generally and then move to specifics. This allows the audience to “ease-into” the President’s message. Clearly, if the President hopes to relate to their audience, they have to speak generally and slowly move into the specifics of the audiences’ current generational observations.

In June 1975, Gerald R. Ford addressed the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. Since the most Presidential commencement addresses have all been delivered at militarily-affiliated schools, Ford’s appearance at West Point built upon the rhetorical traditions of many of his predecessors. Ford announced: “I believe that the American people want a defense posture that is second to none, one that will maintain our qualitative superiority now as well as in the future, one that will be sufficient to ensure peace through the mutually honored commitments we have with reliable allies and through the dedication of highly motivated and professional military establishments, which you are about to enter as officers in the United States Army” (Ford, 1975).

Here, Ford used logos to speak about the defining themes of America. He believed that the American military was the safeguard of many American values, including freedom and liberty. Specifically, he knew that the American public wanted their military to be “second to none,” which would help “ensure peace through the mutually honored commitments we have with reliable allies…” With these broad themes in the minds of graduates, Ford moved deeper into his pathos reminding them that they had the duty to defend these values when they were “…about to enter as officers in the United States Army.”

In many ways, this last sentence could be defined as a “sacred covenant” that binds all Americans together. The President was a part of this covenant because he helped to lead the military through his large cabinet of military advisors. The soldiers were perhaps the most “active” part of this covenant because they bore testimony on the battlefields to conflicts that challenge American freedom every day. Likewise, the people were a part of this covenant because they benefit from the sacrifices of many. In this sense, the people are a true, living testament to all of the blessings that American liberty has to afford.

Every President who has delivered a college commencement address—with the notable exception of Harry S. Truman—earned at least an undergraduate degree. In six instances, Presidents have returned to their alma mater to reminiscence about their time in college. Likewise, they will often address how their education brought influenced them. Four months after taking office, George W. Bush addressed his alma mater, Yale University. While commending Yale itself, he stressed the importance of a college education in general when he observed: “In my time, they spoke of the ‘Yale man.’ I was really never sure what that was, but I do think that I'm a better man because of Yale. All universities, at their best, teach that degrees and honors are far from the full measure of life. Nor is that measure taken in wealth or in titles. What matters most are the standards you live by, the consideration you show others, and the way you use the gifts you are given” (Bush, 2001).

While eschewing traditional tenets of academia—notably degrees and honors—President Bush reminds his audience that a college education should broaden a student’s mind. In this sense, Bush used his ethos to cause a shift from logos to pathos. While many people know that the goal of college is to be educated, a question arises: what exactly is education? Is it the framed diploma? Is it the facts, figures and skills that students learn in the classroom? According to Bush, it is neither.

The shift to pathos occurs when he mentions that true education is the living by the standards of morality. In other words, several key skills should be learned in college, including how to manage time, living with a roommate and so on. In the end, the goal of post-secondary education should be for everyone to live moral, productive members of society. The President thus fulfills the commencement speaker’s role as a rhetorical “gate-keeper, because while a President can point to the gates of adulthoods, it is up to the college graduate to undertake their journey.

The selection of some schools have suggested that the President did not want to travel far to deliver a commencement address. Similarly, as Washington’s most famous resident, the President wanted to perhaps make a globally-aimed speech. This is because Washington is symbolically and functionally the seat of the U.S. federal government. The first such address was given by Herbert Hoover at Howard University in 1932 and has continued most recently through Bill Clinton’s 1994 Gallaudet University address. Arguably, the most defining Washington commencement speech was delivered by President John F. Kennedy at American University in 1963.

In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy bravely spoke of the Soviet threat: “Let us reexamine our attitude toward the Soviet Union. It is discouraging to think that their leaders may actually believe what their propagandists write. It is discouraging to read a recent authoritative Soviet text on Military Strategy and find, on page after page, wholly baseless and incredible claims--such as the allegation that ‘American imperialist circles are preparing to unleash different types of wars ... that there is a very real threat of a preventive war being unleashed by American imperialists against the Soviet Union ... [and that] the political aims of the American imperialists are to enslave economically and politically the European and other capitalist countries... [and] to achieve world domination ... by means of aggressive wars.’ Truly, as it was written long ago: ‘The wicked flee when no man pursueth.’ Yet it is sad to read these Soviet statements--to realize the extent of the gulf between us. But it is also a warning--a warning to the American people not to fall into the same trap as the Soviets, not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats. No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity” (Kennedy, 1963).

Unlike the imminent danger of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet threat was more subtle. Behind the scenes, the Soviets wanted to blame the U.S. for using its powers for world domination. This dangerous plan was feasible because the U.S. emerged as the world’s pre-eminent power after World War II. The Soviet Union could twist this truth, convincing other countries to believe that the U.S. was going to use its power for its own interests. In order to gain authority over their citizenry and thereby gain influence, the Soviet regime had to unleash a Communist government.

However, Kennedy had different views because promptly condemned these Soviet beliefs. Rather than believing Soviet anti-American propaganda, Kennedy was sending a message to other countries that the U.S. would use its power for global good. While the Soviets wanted to portray communism as a way for its citizens to gain socio-economic equality, Kennedy dismissed this. Rather, he observed that communism was, in fact, enslaving its own citizens politically and economically. By condemning communism, Kennedy effectively “turned the tables” on the Soviets, allowing the American ideals of truth and liberty to overshadow Soviet communism.

Arguably, there could be no better venue to speak of peace than in Washington D.C. At the heels of the U.S. government, Kennedy reassured Americans that their government would resist the communist threat. The speech, Kennedy’s last college commencement before his untimely assassination five months later, was a fitting tribute. Not long after the speech’s conclusion, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev reportedly told one of his aides that Kennedy’s speech was “the greatest speech by an American President since Roosevelt” (Martin, 524). The speech had the effect of convincing the U.S. to understand Soviet interests. Ultimately, Kennedy was successful in resuming nuclear test ban negotiations with the Soviets.

If a President’s job could be broadly-defined, it would likely be to transparently lead the country for the welfare of its citizens. One way a President can remain visible to the constituency is by previewing policies. During many commencement addresses, the President has often advocated a specific policy. Sociologist Markella Rutherford of Wellesley College, refers to this phenomenon as the “Public Moral Philosophy.” She defines it as, “…a shared ideal or set of ideals that generate assumptions about what constitutes morality, inform collective moral evaluations and lend legitimacy to moral decisions” (Rutherford, 586).

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