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

By Alexander E. Hopkins
2013, Vol. 5 No. 06 | pg. 3/10 |

Rather than passing a policy without public knowledge, the President “tests” public reaction by explaining and justifying the policy. Even if the President is not successful at convincing the public, transparency alone can help the President can maintain or even increase their popularity ratings. This translates to a better chance of remaining in office for the maximum amount of time. Rather than subjectively convincing listeners to support a policy, the President cleverly cites that the policy is for the “common good.” Regardless of whether this is true, it is nonetheless much easier to convince the public that a policy is preferable when it benefits a large group of people.

Up to this point, there has probably been no other sweeping reform than President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” initiative. Just months after taking office, Johnson vowed to end poverty and racial injustice by reforming, among other programs, healthcare and education. On May 7, 1964, Johnson made his first mentioned the “Great Society” at a commencement speech he delivered at Ohio University. He declared: “And with your courage and with your compassion and your desire, we will build the Great Society. It is a Society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled. Where no man who wants work will fail to find it. Where no citizen will be barred from any door because of his birthplace or his color or his church. Where peace and security is common among neighbors and possible among nations” (Johnson, 1964).

While the message was genuine and heartfelt, it failed to capture public attention. Since there was a small audience, there was little media coverage. A venue’s importance cannot be over-stressed because audience rapture is more likely to occur at a larger venue. If radio listeners and television viewers hear and see massive approval for a President’s policy, they would be more inclined to support it as well.

Two weeks later, however, Johnson’s message was heard by an estimated 80,000 students, faculty and parents at the University of Michigan’s commencement (Bentley Historical Library). Dubbed by speechwriter Horace Busby as the “Michigan kick-off for the Great Society,” it was the largest commencement speech ever given by a sitting U.S. President. He began: “I have come today from the turmoil of your Capital to the tranquility of your campus to speak about the future of your country” (Johnson, 1964).

In Johnson’s opener, he was succinct about what he wanted to accomplish. If his opener is examined carefully, the word “your” is used three times alone. This was used to indicate a common unifier among all Americans—calling the United States their home. Johnson spoke of the “turmoil of your Capital”—that is, the nation’s capital—to speak about upcoming policies. Likely, the turmoil within the Capital is referring to the six month anniversary since Johnson’s predecessor, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. Not only was the public still recovering from the shock, but the federal government had to swiftly adapt to their new leader. However, even amidst public unease, Johnson could turn the turbulent times into a determinative effort to improve the country’s morale.

Unlike his previous commencement speech at Ohio University, Johnson devoted the entirety of Michigan’s commencement to giving the public a preview of his reforms. He expanded on his definition of “The Great Society” when he affirmed: “The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community. It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what it adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods. But most of all, the Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor” (Johnson, 1964).

In Johnson’s case, a larger venue called for a more detailed explanation of the heart of his commencement speech. While Johnson could have rattled-off facts using logos, he cleverly blended pathos as well. The result was that the public could be moved by the needs of society. However, like his prior speech, each of his “visions” for “The Great Society” was a seed planted for the future Later that year, several new laws were signed into law by Johnson. Among them were the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the establishments of Medicare and Medicaid. In a sense, this showed Johnson’s commitment to his audience because he “sign-posted “his topics for easier audience understanding. By referencing injustices that would be alleviated by new laws, Johnson could preview policies while explaining the need for them. As a result, Johnson was transparent to the nation and the rest of the world.

Almost thirty-five years later, education became an even more important issue among Americans. Between 1960-1964, college enrollment among recent high school graduates jumped from 1,679,000 to over 2,145,000. By 1998, that figure was at about 2,810,000 (IES National Center). Presidents since Truman responded to this increase in college enrollment in varying ways. One of these Presidents was Bill Clinton. On June 4, 1996, Clinton addressed graduates at Princeton University. Towards the middle of his speech, he stressed the importance of education by remarking: “Now, it is clear that America has the best higher education system in the world and that it is a key to a successful future in the 21st century. It is also clear that because of cost and other factors, not all Americans have access to higher education. I want to say today that I believe the clear facts of this time make it imperative that our goal must be nothing less than to make the 13th and 14th years of education as universal to all Americans as the first 12 [years] are today. We have put in place an unprecedented college opportunity strategy. Student loans can now be given directly to people who need them, with a provision to repay them based on the ability of the graduate to pay, based on income. This is a dramatic change which is making loans more accessible to young people who did not have them before. AmeriCorps, which by next year will have given over 65,000 young people the chance to earn their way through college by serving their country and their communities. More Pell grants, scholarships for deserving students, every year. Now we want to go further. We want to expand work-study so that a million students can work their way through college by the year 2000. We want to let people use money from their individual retirement accounts to help pay for college. We want every honor student in the top 5 percent of every high school class in America to get a $1,000 scholarship” (Clinton, 1996).

Clinton’s predecessors and successors have often simultaneously previewed and advocated a policy to allow their audience to ponder if the policy meets their values, goals and needs. One of the ways to gain audience approval is to employ logos in showing progress. Progress can be skillfully conveyed if the speaker makes special use of stereotyping the antagonists of their mission to generate a cohesive commitment towards a common goal (Conger, 37). In this case, the antagonist of Clinton’s speech is the lack of money for promising and deserving students to attend college.

The audience will trust the speaker if the speaker has ethos to communicate a remarkable story that creates pathos. Clinton had to convince the audience of his own experience and use this experience to show current progress being made. In Clinton’s case, he used ethos to skillfully address the importance of scholarships (National Archives). In Clinton’s case, he had to rely on his own academic merit to earn several scholarships in order to fund his education at Georgetown’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. However, by the time he left with a degree, his impressive credentials—Phi Beta Kappa, a Rhodes Scholarship and a J.D. from Yale Law School—credentials that all likely played a large role in his election to the Presidency in November 1992.

One of the most important Presidential policies in the 20th century was Civil Rights. Prior to President Johnson’s laws that effectively ended racial discrimination, many rights were denied to African-Americans. Three U.S. Presidents alluded to Africa-American education in their commencement addresses. Of these three, only one could actually find a solution. Between 1932-1964, it is possible to notice two trends in commencement addresses as the years passed: more specific acknowledgement of Civil Rights and a more pressing need to end racial injustice.

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