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

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

In June 1950, Harry S. Truman addressed the University of Missouri in his home state. By the time he addressed graduates, the Marshall Plan had already been passed and was making economic headway in Europe. Truman defined and described the progress by citing: “The nations of Western Europe, with the Marshall Plan aid, are setting new records of production and approaching the restoration of prewar standards of living. Industrial production in Western Europe has increased 30 percent in the last 2 years. The diet of the people there has been restored almost to the prewar level. Furthermore, the countries of Western Europe have been able to get their national finances on a sounder basis, and to obtain sufficient goods so that they could lift most of their rationing and price controls. They have reduced trade barriers and have increased trade among themselves by 50 percent in the last 2 years. As a result, there has been a great revival of faith in freedom and hope for the future among the Western European countries. The numbers and the influence of Communists within their borders have been steadily receding. In the last 2 years, the Communists have received progressively fewer votes in every election held in the Marshall Plan countries” (Truman, 1950).

When Truman addressed the graduates, the public at large worried about the high stakes of $13 billon against the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $258 billion. Thus, since the Marshall Plan’s effects were well underway, it was Truman’s goal by that point to help alleviate the general public’s fears. More broadly, as Howard H. Martin put it, it was his “…larger aim was to sustain public understanding that keeping the peace demands the cost of ‘defensive armaments’ and ‘constructive development’” (Martin, 519). Truman’s speech has gone down in history as a success because the U.S. public cooperated with the terms of the Marshall Plan. In so doing, the Marshall Plan was able to revitalize the European economy.

On June 5, 1974, just two months prior to resigning the Presidency, Richard Nixon gave what would be his final commencement address at the U.S. Naval Academy. Unlike Truman, Nixon was unpopular at this point in his Presidency and was at the brink of impeachment. The Watergate Scandal was already disintegrating the foundation of Nixon’s Presidency. Five days prior, Nixon was ordered to surrender the audio tapes detailing his involvement in the Watergate scandal. Within one month, in the landmark Supreme Court case U.S. v. Nixon, the court unanimously decided that Nixon should indeed turn over the tapes. Adding to further humiliation was that all of the judges he appointed to the Supreme Court—including Justice William Rehnquist and Chief Justice Warren Burger—refused to come to his defense.

Amidst the political turmoil, Nixon remained emotionally-strong at the podium. Aware of impending impeachment, Nixon knew that his good reputation, as well as his ethos, was virtually gone. However, since Nixon was a lawyer himself, he was keenly aware that the modes of persuasion were only one way to bring about unity. Other rhetorical methods—including epideictic oratory—could be used. With this in mind, Nixon decided that he wanted to reminiscence to the graduates about his historic Presidency had made. He recalled: “When we came into office in 1969, this Administration faced a more complex, a more challenging, and yet, in some ways, a more promising world situation than that which existed in the post-World War II era. While we could not and will not abdicate our responsibilities as the most powerful nation in the free world, it was apparent that the time had come to reassess those responsibilities. This was the guiding purpose of the Nixon Doctrine, a doctrine which says that those we help to enjoy the benefits of freedom should bear a fair share of the burden of its defense as well” (Nixon, 1974).

Nixon’s speech, as well as the venue it was delivered at, was the same as when Woodrow Wilson gave the very first Presidential commencement address exactly 60 years prior to that day. It is perhaps unsurprising that the main theme of Nixon’s commencement speech was history. Nixon’s Presidency was historically ground-breaking during his first term—presiding over the first men on the moon in July 1969, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in December 1970 and the first Presidential visit to a diplomatically-reclusive China in February 1972. Nixon proved popular during his first term, earning him landslide victory against Democratic Presidential candidate George McGovern in the 1972 Presidential election.

However, his popularity quickly turned to public anger amidst Watergate. Nixon realized that the best way to handle the turmoil was to focus broadly on the positive aspects of his presidency up to that point. One of the most remarkably effective words that Nixon used in his speech was right at the beginning—using the word “we.” Regardless of a graduate’s political affiliation, it was clear that Nixon wanted to bring unity during a time of political crisis. In creating unity from the beginning, he was able to summarize just how far the country had come since he assumed the Presidency in January 1969.

Nixon’s predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson, used nearly the same rhetorical techniques in light of similar political conditions. On August 24, 1968, President Johnson addressed the summer commencement exercises at his alma mater, Southwest Texas State College. Like Truman (and to a lesser extent, Nixon), Johnson was positive that he was a “lame duck.” On March 31st of the same year, he announced that he would not seek re-election. In one of the only commencement speeches not given during commencement season, Johnson tied in the years of his presidency to general American themes. He remarked: “Let us see things as they are, both the somber facts in America, and the signs of hope in America. Let us reflect, as we begin the attacks and the arguments, upon one simple fact: America works, and the American political system works. In the past 5 years, this Nation has gone through some very turbulent times. But in those years, those 5 years, we have lifted 10 million people out of poverty. In that brief time, America has launched a program of Medicare for 20 million older citizens. In that time, the American Nation has cleared away most of the legal barriers to equal treatment in jobs, in public accommodations, and in voting” (Johnson, 1968).

Like many parts of a well-written commencement speech, Johnson began broadly, and then proceeded to more specific supporting details. In this case, the specifics were statistics because they recalled the most historic tenets of his plan for a “Great Society.” However, given the tumultuous socio-economic backdrop of American society during his Presidency, a question emerges: Was Johnson justified in mentioning all of these statistics to make people think positively about him? One could answer this both ways. While he did accomplish all of these objectives, he left the Presidency with glaring unpopularity because of how he dealt with the Vietnam War.

If the President can bring unity amidst division over their own policies, the President can also create unity over differences outside of the White House. As Boston College Political Science Professor Alan Wolfe (2000) writes: “It is whether the issue is viewed as public or private. The public is what you have to do; the private is what you want to do. To make the personal the political is to sacrifice the very autonomy that makes personal life the refuge Americans believe it has become. Public and private in America are mirror images of each other” (Wolfe, 3). In this case, the public division is a division that affects domestic society as a whole, while a private division (in the President’s case) usually involves a policy that the President introduces in order to fix a small-scale division.

When the White House announced in 2005 that President Bush would be delivering the Calvin College commencement, many students were less-than-enthused. Prior to his visit, the entire campus was divided as to whether they wanted Bush to speak at their commencement. Protestors created billboards that read: “Our Commencement is Not Your Platform” (Vanderhaagen, 547). Clearly, these students knew that one of the President’s most subtle goals to accomplish during their commencement platform is to deliver a political message. Bush realized that he needed to neutralize the tense atmosphere before he could unleash political ideas. He began: “Thanks for having me. I was excited to come back to Calvin, and I was just telling Laura the other night about what fun it would be to come to Calvin College. I said, ‘You know, Laura, I love being around so many young folks. You know, it gives me a chance to relive my glory days in academia.’ [Laughter] She said, ‘George, that's not exactly how I would describe your college experience.’ [Laughter] She also said one other thing I think the graduates will appreciate hearing, a good piece of advice. She said, ‘The folks here are here to get their diploma, not to hear from an old guy go on too long” (Bush, 2005).

A dominant rhetorical technique that the President uses when their appearance is mired by controversy is to use humor. For Bush, this was second nature, as humor was employed in every commencement address that he delivered. However, this particular commencement stands out because Bush did not always relate to his audience on a candidly personal level. Prior to his election as President in 2000, the Washington Post wrote a piece describing Bush’s college years at Yale University in the 1960s: “It was a confusing time even for the most directed and driven [of students], and Bush was neither. As Yale changed around him, Bush clung to the traditions of an earlier era, boozy fraternity parties, secret societies and football weekends, while other classmates protested the war and challenged the political establishment that was waging it. After freshman year, he gathered up his Andover pals and lived with the same group in Davenport College for three years. A mediocre student, Bush majored in history, with grades that were apparently not good enough for admission to the University of Texas law school, which turned him down as an in-state applicant two years after he graduated” (Romano & Lardner, A1).

The purpose of Bush briefly delving into his college years was to show the graduates that they are on the right track. Upon graduation, students can feel overwhelmed with the myriad of options available to them. Among a few of the options include going straight to graduate school, securing a job and taking time off. For Bush, he had no idea of the direction he was going towards. Clearly, he paid a more attention to his social needs than his academic obligations in college. After graduation, he worked in many different capacities. He joined the Texas Air National Guard, staying until honorably discharged in 1974. During his time in the National Guard, he abandoned the prospect of law school after a rejection letter arrived in 1970 from the University of Texas at Austin. In 1973, he earned a Masters of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Bush delved into his personal life because he wanted to show that opportunities are abound, that a new graduate can adapt to the “real world.” Despite his own uncertainty, Bush’s presence showed that even the most unsure soul could accomplish great feats in life—including becoming President of the U.S.

In May 2009, President Obama sparked controversy before even setting foot on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. Several months prior, when University President Father John I. Jenkins invited the President to speak, many students and faculty were outraged because Obama’s pro-choice abortion stance conflicted with Roman Catholic doctrine (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011). Prior to addressing Notre Dame, Obama probably knew that his political affiliation was in the minority. With the exception of Jimmy Carter, all of Notre Dame’s Presidential Commencements have featured Republican Presidents. It is unclear precisely why most of the Presidents that have spoken during Notre Dame’s commencements were Republican. Possible reasons could include that (a) these past presidents opposed abortion, (b) whether or not most of Notre Dame’s students are Republican or (c) whether Father Jenkins wanted to reach out to Democrats. Although top-secret Presidential security is mostly in the background during a President’s visit, the placard-wielding protestors near armed security guards made the President’s safety a public concern. Even during the commencement, protestors outside were handcuffed and dragged into police cars while muttering prayers. Amid the chaos of protestors, President Obama had to be strategic in delivering his message. Clearly, the issue could not be ignored and had to somehow be addressed in the commencement speech. At the same time, however, the entire speech could not focus entirely on the issue of abortion.

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