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

By Alexander E. Hopkins
2013, Vol. 5 No. 06 | pg. 6/10 |

However, a happy medium could be drawn by his speechwriters, who likely looked to Obama’s Presidential predecessors for inspiration. While the specific rhetorical strategies were different for each President based on unique social conditions, the broad objective and the way of accomplishing this objective is the same—to promote social unity, speak broadly and then move specifically. For President Obama, this was no exception. He began his speech on a humorous note to find common ground with the audience. He began: “Now, this excites me. [Laughter] I want to congratulate the winners of this year's tournament, a team by the name of "Hallelujah Holla Back." [Laughter] Congratulations, well done. Though I have to say, I am personally disappointed that the "Barack O'Ballers" did not pull it out this year. [Laughter] So next year, if you need a 6'2" forward with a decent jumper, you know where I live” [Laughter] (Obama, 2009).

Judging by the audiences’ laughter, Obama found common ground with Notre Dame through his love for basketball. He knew that he was surrounded by sports fans, especially fans of Notre Dame’s famous “Fighting Irish” sports teams. While humor is hardly a new Presidential commencement rhetorical tactic, it's use to alleviate a particularly tense situation is not common. Obama knew that his message would not be as effective if the audience was uncomfortable in their seats. However, by disarming the situation with humor, Obama could assure himself that the audience would be relaxed so that they could hear his message.

At the body of his speech, Obama rhetorically squared-off with the issue of abortion directly. He said: “Your generation must decide how to save God's creation from a changing climate that threatens to destroy it. Your generation must seek peace at a time when there are those who will stop at nothing to do us harm, and when weapons in the hands of a few can destroy the many. And we must find a way to reconcile our ever-shrinking world with its ever-growing diversity: diversity of thought, diversity of culture, and diversity of belief. In short, we must find a way to live together as one human family” (Obama, 2009).

President Obama subtly reminded his audience of the beauty of America’s government—that the citizens can choose to support certain positions and thus elect leaders who reflect their views. Even if some citizens do not agree with a leader’s views, they do not have to vote for them. Likewise, the dissenting group can still support their own views. However, they are obliged to respect the leader. Interestingly, this part of the speech can be interpreted in multiple ways. While abortion is one interpretation, the largely unpopular invasion of Iraq is another. If interpreting from the lens of the Iraqi Invasion, Obama’s words gain an entirely different connotation. For one, instead of unborn children, “God’s creation” is a human soldier on the battlefield. Likewise, the “changing climate that threatens to destroy” shifts from the pro-life-pro-choice camps to the images of anti-American terrorist groups such as Al-Qaida. Lastly, diversity in thoughts, cultures and beliefs can cleverly unite both the issues of abortion and terrorism.

In abortion, Obama calls for each camp—pro-life and pro-choice—to recognize and respect one another’s differences. Clearly, Obama has every right to say this, as he is acting as the mediator between the officials that invited him and the protestors that objected to his presence. In terrorism, a diversity of beliefs is clearly evident because many Americans have blamed Islam in general for Al-Qaida’s perceived justification for their attacks on American soil. As time progressed, the world has realized that Al-Qaida takes Islamic law out of context to provide justification for their violence.

At the beginning of this part of his speech, Obama starts, “Your generation must decide…” Such a phrase was calculated because, in the 2008 election, college-aged students voted for Obama over Republican contender John McCain by a margin of 68% to 32% (Lesperance). Since Obama was newly-elected, he clearly knew that appearing at a controversial event would place him in the center of the spotlight. Even though virtually everyone in the audience knew that Obama was pro-choice, he did not use Notre Dame’s podium to preach his values and policies. Even if a President was not at a Catholic (or Christian)-affiliated university, the chances that they would only address their side of a controversial issue is quite low. To do so would defeat the goal of building unity in a commencement speech.

Even if religious conflicts are absent prior to a President’s commencement appearance, the President could still appeal to religion. Usually, this strategy was used when a President appeared at a religiously-affiliated school. Since the President was speaking globally during their speech, some may wonder why religion would be addressed to build unity. After all, there are many people in the world that profess a faith outside of Christianity, as well as no faith at all. The answer to this question lies in how the President can be thought of as a “goodwill ambassador.” Although their commencement address would be heard worldwide, the President just had to focus on addressing the graduates of the religiously-affiliated school. In respectfully paying tribute to a given faith, the President shows the world that maintaining peaceful relations with different faiths is indeed possible and commendable.

In May 1992, President George H.W. Bush visited the University of Notre Dame. When examining the timing, it is likely no coincidence that Bush spoke during the 150th anniversary of the university’s founding. Similarly, Bush probably recognized prior to his appearance that Notre Dame is considered one of the most prestigious Roman Catholic-affiliated institutions of higher education in the U.S. In light of this knowledge, Bush paid tribute to Roman Catholicism in a subtly unique way: “Let us look objectively at a few brief and sad facts. In comparison with other countries, the Census Bureau found that the U.S. has the highest divorce rate, the highest number of children involved in divorce, the highest teenage pregnancy rates, the highest abortion rates, the highest percentage of children living in a single-parent household, and the highest percentage of violent deaths among our precious young. These are not the kind of records that we want to have as a great country” (Bush, 1992).

What is unique about this part of his speech is that Presidents have rarely “shocked” their audience with startling statistics. These statistics are surprising because they contradict traditional American values. However, the main objective of these statistics was to establish a need that the Roman Catholic Church could help solve. The Catholic Church is public about it's views against divorce, pre-marital sex, abortion, and murder. While the Catholic Church is against these societal vices, these problems cannot be solved without action. Knowing that his audience consisted of a sizeable number of Catholics, President Bush offered up a challenge to the students of Notre Dame. In order to make this challenge more appealing and familiar, Bush alluded to a recent Pope who proved to be popular worldwide. Bush continued: “As Pope John XXIII said, “‘The family is the first essential cell of human society.’ The family is the primary and most critical institution in America's communities” (Bush, 1992). Pope John XXIII was a good choice for alluding to a popular Catholic figure. For any Pope, it is possible to reach out to the global community as a whole. However, Pope John’s warm, media-friendly character captivated the world. Upon his election to the pontificate in October 1958, it became clear that the new Pope came from a good family that took care of him. When he reached out to the world with open arms, Pope John’s character was a true testament to how a good family could make the difference in one’s life.

Precisely 11 years earlier, Ronald Reagan visited the University of Notre Dame to deliver their commencement address. The context of events prior to Reagan’s visit proved to be startling. Just four days earlier, Pope John Paul II, was shot while riding in his “Pope Mobile” in St. Peter’s Square. Although the Pope was in stable condition by the time Reagan gave his commencement address, the world was nonetheless still unpleasantly surprised by the shooting. Reagan paid tribute to the Pope by observing: “One can't say those words—compassion, sacrifice, and endurance—without thinking of the irony that one who so exemplifies them, Pope John Paul II, a man of peace and goodness, an inspiration to the world, would be struck by a bullet from a man towards whom he could only feel compassion and love. It was Pope John Paul II who warned in last year's encyclical on mercy and justice against certain economic theories that use the rhetoric of class struggle to justify injustice. He said, ‘In the name of an alleged justice the neighbor is sometimes destroyed, killed, deprived of liberty or stripped of fundamental human rights’” (Reagan, 1981).

In many ways, Reagan’s tribute to Pope John Paul II proved to be a rousing success amidst tragedy. Choosing John Paul II as the subject for his commencement address was ideal because, besides addressing a current event, John Paul II was the leader for Roman Catholics all over the world. For the Roman Catholic-affiliated University of Notre Dame, this proved to be no exception. Even though Notre Dame and John Paul II are firmly rooted within the Roman Catholic faith, Reagan’s tribute to the Pope transcended the beliefs of Roman Catholicism. When the attempted murder of Pope John Paul II occurred on May 13, 1981, Catholics and non-Catholics worldwide were brought together in prayer for the ailing pontiff. When it was announced that the Pope was stable, the Pope later forgave his would-be assassin and called upon the people to, “pray for my brother…whom I have sincerely forgiven” (Catholic News Agency, 2006). By this simple request for kindness, Catholics and non-Catholics alike witnessed what Reagan called “compassion, sacrifice, and endurance.”

In May 1990, George H.W. Bush traveled to Lynchburg, Virginia to give Liberty University’s commencement address. Like every Presidential commencement address, Bush’s appearance at Liberty was no accident. Throughout the 1980s during Ronald Reagan’s term in office, Evangelical Christians slowly began to identify with the Republican Party, a historical trend that is still apparent today (Smidt & Kellstedt, 335). Jerry Falwell, Liberty University’s founder, was well-known for his move into the political arena, which had the effect of mobilizing a sizeable majority of the U.S. Evangelical population. In some respects, it can be said that Bush was politically-indebted to Falwell for his victory in the 1988 Presidential election.

Timing-wise, it was close to the 20th anniversary of Liberty’s founding by Falwell in 1971. Since the school’s founding, almost every aspect of the school has grown tremendously. Perhaps as a way to thank Falwell for gathering support during his 1988 Presidential campaign, Bush began his speech by praising Christian education: “This afternoon, I'd like to talk about another element of democratic change, what I call individual empowerment: loving our neighbors, helping them help themselves. True democracy, of course, has always entailed putting power in the hands of the individual. The ancient Greeks spoke of it. Millions have given their lives on behalf of it. Perhaps Woodrow Wilson said it best: ‘I believe in democracy because it releases the energy of every human being.’ More than 200 years ago, we secured democracy through the American Revolution, ensuring rights like freedom of speech, due process under the law, and to think and dream as we choose— also, I might add, the freedom to pray as we choose, which is why I support a constitutional amendment restoring voluntary prayer. We need the faith of our fathers back in our schools. The rights of free elections, free markets, and the expression of free will form the very essence of America. And over the past year, they've become the message of America, helping liberty triumph over dictatorship in every corner of the globe” (Bush, 1990).

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