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

By Alexander E. Hopkins
2013, Vol. 5 No. 06 | pg. 7/10 |

When Bush weaved Liberty into the broad framework of his speech, it was more subtle than most Presidential commencement addresses. The beginning “loving our neighbors” is paraphrased from two well-known verses in the Holy Bible. This is a direct nod to Liberty University’s commitment to a Christian education, especially their well-known community service initiatives. Bush’s next rhetorical strategy refers directly to the historic “Revolutions of 1989,” which he presided over as President. Although the “Revolutions of 1989” did not conclude until early-1992, the Berlin Wall and Soviet Union had their critical foundations destroyed, which were two pinnacles of the movement. These two events were enough for Bush to confidently remark that “True democracy, of course, has always entailed putting power in the hands of the individual.”

In order to support his point, Bush referred to one of his predecessors, Woodrow Wilson. Of all his presidential predecessors that he could have quoted, Wilson was arguably the best choice because Wilson presided over another revolution—World War I. Unlike World War II, World War I changed the status quo dramatically. European citizens formed their own democracy by violently protesting against Europe’s remaining monarchs. By the time the dust settled in late-1918, most of Europe’s monarchs were stripped of their power, leading to a “new world order.” Likewise, Bush’s speech segued into another strong historical example to show democracy—the American Revolution. When American colonists stripped King George III’s power over them, they were able to create a new government from the ground-up. Although the new American government ultimately included separating church from state, several church denominations were able to focus more on reforming themselves from within as opposed to influencing outside American politics.

In many ways, it can be said that Churches contributed to America’s “new world order.” The diversity of Churches led to increased religious understanding because America developed into a welcoming nation for many Christian denominations, ultimately leading other non-Christian faiths to be welcomed as well. This would explain why Bush would support a constitutional amendment restoring voluntary prayer. He wanted to make show that, if one faith can pray in America, every faith could pray as well. This ideology would go back to both of Bush’s historical examples because religion took deeper root after the collapse of monarchial and communist-based governments.

When a sitting President dies in office, the U.S. and the world grieves However, when a President dies from an assassination, much of the world tries to make sense from such a tragedy. The successors of four presidents who were assassinated had to face the challenge of helping the world’s strongest country to move on amidst several weeks—or even months—of public grieving. The only way progress can be made in a timely manner amidst tragedy is to marshal the strength of others. When applied to the U.S. President, their goal was to unite American citizens together, as well as with the rest of the world. Most recently, President Lyndon B. Johnson had to face this challenge when his predecessor, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in November 1963.

In President Johnson’s May 30, 1964 commencement speech at UT-Austin, he knew that the theme of unity had to be addressed right from the beginning. Not only was the public still recovering from his predecessor’s assassination just six months prior, but the killing brought shame to Texas because it occurred on Texas soil. On top of this, Johnson himself was born and raised in Texas. Johnson knew that American Presidential history was not immune to Presidential assassinations. He addressed this by beginning his speech: “Dr. Ransom, Mr. Heath, Board of Regents, Governor Connally, Senator Yarborough, members of this graduating class, my fellow Americans: Several days ago I received a clipping from the Daily Texan, which read as follows: ‘The student body at the University and the people of Texas, as a rule, may not agree with the President in politics, but they are much too broad-minded not to honor the office which he holds. ‘Besides,’ your editor added generously, ‘he has some good qualities anyhow.’ Happily, the date on that clipping was 1905, and the visiting President then was President Theodore Roosevelt. But knowing the candor and the freedom of this university, I would not have been the least surprised if the date had been 1964” (Johnson, 1964).

To engage his audience Johnson began with a surprising story that related to UT- Austin. Until he revealed that the article was written in 1905, it was likely that most in the audience thought that the article was written about Johnson. Although the story itself was surprising, the fact that President Johnson narrated it into his commencement address was no accident. Like Johnson, President Theodore Roosevelt succeeded an assassinated President. As such, both Roosevelt and Johnson felt like political outsiders because they did not succeed their predecessors in a traditional election.

Political alienation was likely present in Texas prior to Johnson’s visit because Texas politics included partisan groups closely split between Democrats and Republicans. In the 1960 Presidential election, Texas narrowly casted their vote for Democratic Candidate John F. Kennedy over Republican Candidate Richard M. Nixon. However, the unifying rhetoric of this speech likely helped Johnson win twice as many votes as Republican candidate Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential election. What is remarkable about Johnson’s partisan loyalty transformation is that Roosevelt, who was Republican, experienced a drop in partisan loyalty in Texas. As time went on, Texas voted for Democratic Presidential Candidate Alton Parker in the 1904 Presidential Election (Texas Secretary of State, 2011).

President Johnson, like Roosevelt, assumed the Presidency while the public was grieving over the death of their Presidential predecessor. His complimentary remark “…knowing the candor and the freedom of this university…” was important to his surprising rhetorical introduction because he did not feel hesitant to speak at UT amidst the turbulent social landscape. If he was hesitant in any way, he certainly would have not appeared to deliver UT’s commencement address.

In 1996, California eliminated affirmative action through the passage of Proposition 209. Proponents of Affirmative Action felt that Proposition 209 was a major loss in increasing diversity in the workplace, as well as in educational institutions. In response, the Preuss School was chartered on the campus of the University of California—San Diego (UCSD) in La Jolla, CA. The goal of Preuss was to prepare minority and other under-represented students for competitive admission to the University of California (UC) system. Instead of focusing on minority status alone, a student’s low-income financial status would earn an entry into the lottery system.

However, reviews for the school’s ideology were initially mixed. University of Chicago Anthropologist Lisa S. Rosen and Hugh Mehan of the University of California-San Diego (UCSD) explain (2003): “The proposal generated both considerable support and tremendous controversy; eventually, it was rejected when it failed to garner the full support of either the faculty of UCSD or its new chancellor, Robert Dynes. The ensuing public outcry, negative publicity, and pressure from the Regents resulted in a more comprehensive plan, which called for a newly configured charter school, a research center to serve as an umbrella organization over the school, partnerships with public schools, and a unit to evaluate the university’s multifaceted ‘outreach’ activities. That plan was approved by the chancellor and the faculty” (Rosen & Mehan, 656).

Despite the eventual public compromise, many opponents were still angry. Their anger likely stemmed from how the randomized odds ignored academic merit. First of all, unlike Preuss’s lottery system, affirmative action does not take into account a minority college applicant’s financial status. Rather, affirmative action is used only for admissions purposes. Likewise, unlike affirmative action, Preuss’s lottery system is simply a “numbers game,” not a conscious decision as to whether or not to admit a minority applicant based on merit.

On June 14, 1997, President Bill Clinton visited UCSD and delivered the commencement address, as well as speaking at a graduation luncheon. While the actual commencement address was broadly congratulatory towards the graduates, the luncheon proved to be a more candid response to the Preuss School controversy. He began: “Now, we know what we will look like, but what will we be like? Can we be one America respecting, even celebrating, our differences, but embracing even more what we have in common? Can we define what it means to be an American, not just in terms of the hyphen showing our ethnic origins but in terms of our primary allegiance to the values America stands for and values we really live by? Our hearts long to answer yes, but our history reminds us that it will be hard. The ideals that bind us together are as old as our Nation, but so are the forces that pull us apart. Our Founders sought to form a more perfect Union. The humility and hope of that phrase is the story of America, and it is our mission today” (Clinton, 1997).

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