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

By Alexander E. Hopkins
2013, Vol. 5 No. 06 | pg. 8/10 |

President Clinton began his speech broadly by posing several questions to promote deep thought on the issue at hand. In this case, Clinton acknowledges at the beginning that there has been considerable focus on an individual’s skin color, as well as their ethnic background. However, he implores those present to look beyond these external characteristics. Instead, they should focus on the innate tenets that make them unique, as well as alike. For Clinton, he feels that everyone who calls America their home—regardless of their religious, ethnic, racial or socio-economic background—has a commitment to American values. A sampling of these values would include freedom, justice, liberty and diversity. Without diversity, America would not be the dynamic nation that it has been for over two centuries.

Indeed, President Clinton wanted to remind his audience of America’s record of appreciating diversity in the public realm. He continued: “Consider this: We were born with a Declaration of Independence which asserted that we were all created equal and a Constitution that enshrined slavery. We fought a bloody Civil War to abolish slavery and preserve the Union, but we remained a house divided and unequal by law for another century. We advanced across the continent in the name of freedom, yet in so doing we pushed Native Americans off their land, often crushing their culture and their livelihood” (Clinton, 1997).

Clinton highlights American history because he wanted to show current progress compared to patterns of progress in the past. Even when Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” minority groups such as African-Americans remained disenfranchised. Since the U.S. declared independence from Great Britain over 200 years ago on July 4, 1776, the United States’ commitment to diversity did not begin overnight. While slavery was abolished through President Abraham Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation,” the problem was not solved until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. However, even if progress was delayed, it is still better than no progress at all. In fact, even just an inkling of progress shows that the end goal of diversity and equal rights is not impossible.

President Clinton, as his commencement speech progressed, addressed more specific roots that were causing disunity. On one hand, proponents of affirmative action felt that minority groups were being disenfranchised. On the other, opponents of affirmative action felt that they themselves were being disenfranchised. He addressed the latter group because they were the group causing the controversy. He remarked: “Let me say that I know that for many white Americans, this conversation may seem to exclude them or threaten them. That must not be so. I believe white Americans have just as much to gain as anybody else from being a part of this endeavor, much to gain from an America where we finally take responsibility for all our children so that they, at last, can be judged as Martin Luther King hoped, not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” (Clinton, 1997).

Rather than addressing each group individually and then addressing both groups as a whole to build unity, Clinton’s rhetorical strategy was different. At first, Clinton attempted to bring the two groups together by citing past American history. The history between the 1770s through the 1960s brought unity because he illustrated a period at which all people—especially African Americans—could progressively be treated equally in the social and legal realms. Equal treatment is particularly important because both sides would want to envision this as their end goal. As such, the end is the same for both groups, but the means of accomplishing the end is starkly different.

Moving further, President Clinton subsequently wanted to once again unite the proponents and opponents of affirmative action. He used pathos when he said: “I am a Scotch-Irish Southern Baptist, and I'm proud of it. But my life has been immeasurably enriched by the power of the Torah, the beauty of the Koran, the piercing wisdom of the religions of East and South Asia—all embraced by my fellow Americans. I have felt indescribable joy and peace in black and Pentecostal churches. I have come to love the intensity and selflessness of my Hispanic fellow Americans toward la familia” (Clinton, 1997).

Clinton wanted to appeal to affirmative action proponents by citing just a few of the many religious and ethnic groups that make up America. Similarly, Clinton could reach out to the affirmative action opponents because he showed that everyone—like Clinton himself—comes from a myriad of different roots. Likewise, the term “diversity” does not just focus exclusively on race alone. Diversity, among other tenets, can also focus on ethnicity and religion as well. In this light, it is no accident that he brings up tenets of race (Hispanics), ethnicity (Scotch-Irish) and religion (The Jewish Torah, the Muslim Koran, East and South Asian Religions and Pentecostal Churches).

Many Presidents have spoken at schools where controversy has provoked deeply divided opinions. However, other Presidents have created unity when minor breaks long-standing rivalries have existed. One such case was President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 visit to Yale University. Kennedy, who graduated from Harvard, spoke at Yale’s commencement despite a well-known college rivalry Harvard and Yale. Kennedy capitalized on the rivalry by using humorously noting: “President Griswold, members of the faculty, graduates and their families, ladies and gentlemen: Let me begin by expressing my appreciation for the very deep honor that you have conferred upon me. As General de Gaulle occasionally acknowledges America to be the daughter of Europe, so I am pleased to come to Yale, the daughter of Harvard. It might be said now that I have the best of both worlds: a Harvard education and a Yale degree” (Kennedy, 1962).

The most obvious purpose of this statement was to quell arguably the most famous college sports rivalry in the U.S. Some of the Harvard-Yale sports rivalries, as past years attest, could be taken quite seriously. Likewise, it paid two compliments to Yale: Yale was born from one of the world’s pre-eminent universities. Clearly, this was evident that Kennedy indeed had the “best of both worlds” because a Yale degree is held in high-esteem along with Harvard. Indeed, Kennedy was honored to become the proud recipient of a Yale degree. He expanded on his gratefulness by continuing: “In any event, I am very glad to be here and as a new member of the club, I have been checking to see what earlier links existed between the institution of the Presidency and Yale. I found that a member of the class of 1878, William Howard Taft, served one term in the White House as preparation for becoming a member of this faculty. And a graduate of 1804, John C. Calhoun, regarded the Vice Presidency, quite naturally, as too lowly a status for a Yale alumnus—and became the only man in history to ever resign that office” (Kennedy, 1962).

Kennedy expanded on how a Yale degree is held in high-esteem. Although not historically-accurate, Kennedy fondly joked that John C. Calhoun resigned the vice-presidency because it was “too-lowly” for the high-status of a Yale alumni. As the third-oldest college in the United States, many famous alumni, including five U.S. Presidents alone, have passed through its Ivy-covered buildings. Since he recognized that he was on “hallowed ground,” Kennedy paid a respectfully unifying tribute to Yale’s enduring legacy.

Sooner or later, either through the President’s own admittance during the speech or through careful analysis of the speech afterwards, the public would know just why the President was at a given school at a given time. For George W. Bush, he made the former abundantly clear during his final Presidential commencement address. On December 12, 2008, George W. Bush delivered the winter commencement address at Texas A&M University. Unlike the majority of all Presidential Commencement addresses, his address was not given at the conclusion of the Spring Semester. This was no accident.

On November 4 of that year, Democratic Candidate Barack Obama won the 2008 Presidential Election and would be sworn in on January 20, 2009. Knowing that his Republican Party had just lost the election, Bush wanted one last chance to return to his home state of Texas as President. Especially during his second term in office, Bush’s approval ratings fell dramatically to the point where it hovered slightly above 20% when he left office (University of Minnesota, 2008). Despite this, Texans still felt loyal to their home state hero and the Republican Party. After a back-and-forth “Howdy!” greeting between Bush and the audience, Bush proudly remarked: “I am thrilled to be back in Aggie land. And it's always an honor to be introduced by the President of the United States, especially when he's your dad” (Bush, 2008).

Bush certainly wanted to make his final commencement address special. By bringing along his dad, George W. Bush increased the audience’s enthusiasm before even beginning his speech. Likewise, his reference of “Aggie land” evoked a unique bond with the school. Bush appealed to the school’s pride because no other university in the U.S. can claim “Aggies” as a sports mascot or a nickname for a university affiliation. As his speech progressed, Bush dealt with more specific matters, including reminding his audience that they were his final Presidential Commencement audience. He went on: “This is also my last commencement address as President. And it is fitting that it takes place here in Texas, where I have been so blessed over the years. I was raised here by wonderful parents, surrounded by brothers and sisters whose love still sustains me. And Texas is where I went to a backyard barbeque and met a beautiful teacher named Laura Welch. Texas is where our girls were born and our lifelong friends live. And next month, when our time in Washington is done, Texas is where we're coming home” (Bush, 2008).

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