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

By Alexander E. Hopkins
2013, Vol. 5 No. 06 | pg. 9/10 |

Like his opener, Bush appealed to Texas A&M’s pride because the school was privileged to host his final Presidential commencement address. More broadly, he was also appealing to Texas A&M’s (as well as his own) home state of Texas. As he goes on to tell, Texas became the cornerstone for much of Bush’s formative years. As he got older, Texas still played a special role in his life. From January 1995 until it became clear that he had won the 2000 Presidential, Bush served as Governor of Texas. Even after his Presidency was over, Texas still continues to serve as his home.

Timing, as Presidents have shown, is their calculated response to unique socio-political circumstances at a given time and place. In the case of George W. Bush at Texas A&M, he was making a final statement before leaving office to head back home to Texas. At Gerald R. Ford’s Commencement Address at Penn in 1975, two different elements of time and place can be observed. First, July 4, 1976 was not far off at the time of Ford’s address, especially since the date coincided with the two hundredth anniversary of American Independence. Likewise, Penn’s location is in Philadelphia, less than four miles from where independence was formally-declared in Independence Hall.

Ford’s commencement address at Penn was his first as President. Nine months prior, Richard Nixon resigned the Presidency in the wake of Watergate. Ford’s appearance in Philadelphia suggests that the centuries-old American ideals could still survive, even in the wake of a political scandal. In the years following the Declaration of Independence’s signing, the signers were confronted with groups such as loyalists and patriots that created disunity among the general public. Ford, like the signers, was faced with difficult decisions. In the signers’ case, the decision to sever ties with Britain was highly controversial. Nearly 200 years later, when Ford issued Nixon a pardon, the decision was likewise controversial. Both decisions created disunity, leading to many famous rhetorical speeches.

One of the first rhetorical goals of the President when beginning a university commencement speech is to somehow appeal to school pride. Especially at an elite and historical university such as Penn, Ford capitalized on Penn’s history by beginning: “Two hundred years ago, the members of the Second Continental Congress adjourned their sessions and marched over in a body to participate in the graduation ceremonies of your great institution. I congratulate you on this unique bit of history. From my experience, it is not all that easy to get a Congress to march together on anything” (Ford, 1975).

Ford cleverly blended history with humor to appeal to Penn’s reputation. This was effective, since Ford needed to pacify public unease about his first year in office. His statement was also unique because it could have only been pulled off at Penn.

Not only is Penn located near several meeting houses that led to the founding of America, but it was the only degree-granting college in Pennsylvania prior to American Independence. As Gerald R. Ford proceeded through his speech, his words became more specific. While the main topic of the address was Penn, the speech transitioned from Penn’s history in the American Revolution to the history of the institution itself. Ford went on to note: “Your illustrious founder, Benjamin Franklin, conceived of a university as a center where an individual can find fulfillment through the individual's own efforts. Franklin did not see schools as the purveyors of all of the answers. He saw them constantly responding to the needs of the community rather than conforming scholars to the rigid classic mold” (Ford, 1975).

Like the beginning of his commencement, Ford appealed to specific tenets of Penn that makes the university unique. Even from Penn’s founding in 1740 by Benjamin Franklin, Penn was always unique in history because it was the very first non-sectarian institution in the British North American colonies. Even after American independence was secured in 1783, Penn continued to be a trailblazer. Penn’s curriculum was arguably the most-influential blueprint for later non-sectarian institutions of higher education.

In addition to appealing specifically to colleges and universities, the President must also employ unifying rhetoric to bring the country together. For many American citizens, the celebration of holidays is a large part of American identity. There are many holidays that are unique to the United States—Independence Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Veterans Day and many others. However, there are also many holidays that are celebrated worldwide—Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Halloween and others. When the President steps up to the podium, they realize that the ears of the entire world are listening attentively to their every word. As such, the President would want to appeal to the world—not just the U.S—to remind different countries that Americans can find common ground. In light of this, the President would want to speak about holidays celebrated worldwide.

On May 9, 2010, President Barack Obama visited Hampton University to deliver their graduation commencement address. The date was notable because it coincided with Mother’s Day. President Obama capitalized on the feelings of gratitude for mothers worldwide. He began:” To all the mothers in the house: As somebody who is surrounded by women in the White House—[laughter]—grew up surrounded by women, let me take a moment just to say thank you for all that you put up with each and every day. We are so grateful to you, and it is fitting to have such a beautiful day when we celebrate all our mothers” (Obama, 2010). By vocally capitalizing on the overwhelming sentiments of the public, Obama could build unity amongst the Hampton graduates, the U.S and the rest of the world.

One subtle rhetorical technique was Obama’s use of the double-entendre. “House” for him had a double meaning: the “house” of Hampton University graduates assembled, as well as the President’s home at the “White House.” A possible explanation for this is that the occupants’ of both “houses” are working hard towards improving the country. The “White House” is politically helping to lead the country in a good direction. The less-obvious “house” of Hampton University graduates—like the gathering of most college graduates—represents the future of America. As college graduates, young men and women have been challenged in the classroom. This has included writing coherently, reading quickly and thinking critically. Through their past class assignments, these graduates will be able to prove to employers that they can meet important deadlines.

As of this writing, President Barack Obama’s appearance at Hampton University is the only time that an African-American U.S. President has appeared at a historically-black university. This begs the question: why Hampton, especially when another historically-black university, Howard, is practically in the President’s backyard? None of Obama’s public papers from May 2010 indicates travels remotely near Virginia. However, towards the beginning of his speech, Obama offers a clue: “Now, before we get started, I just want to say, I'm excited the battle of the real HU will be taking place in Washington this year. [Laughter] You know I am not going to pick sides. [Laughter] But my understanding is it's been 13 years since the Pirates lost. As one Hampton alum on my staff put it, the last time Howard beat Hampton, the Fugees were still together” [Laughter] (Obama, 2010). Like many of his predecessors, Obama used humor to “disarm” a noted college rivalry (Mid-Eastern Athletic, 2011). However, when looking past the humor, a careful observer will notice the joke that a “Hampton alum” told him about the last time that Howard beat Hampton. Obama is most likely referring to Erika Henderson, who was the only Hampton alumni who had joined Obama’s staff prior to his Hampton commencement address.

An effective rhetorical strategy among Presidents is to increase school pride would be to mention famous figures who are alumni. Since the alumni became successful, the education that they earned likely played a role in their success. President Gerald R. Ford mentioned a famous alumnus who attended West Point when he gave the commencement address there in June 1975. Ford recalled: “As a young Congressman, I was one [of many people] who urged your greatest graduate to return from Europe and campaign for election as President of the United States. I remember listening to General Eisenhower speak of the importance of those three words in his own distinguished career. He kept them in the forefront of his thoughts during his years as President. It was his devotion to duty, honor, and country that brought peace to the world, respect to America, and progress for all our people during his 8 years in the White House” (Ford, 1975). In addition to increasing West Point’s by mentioning Eisenhower as the “greatest graduate,” Ford also spoke about one of his most well-known Presidential predecessors to increase his own ethos. Likewise, Ford could also increase his partisan appeal, since both Ford and Eisenhower were Republicans.

A surprising reason why a President may appear at a given school is because they are an alumnus. While many schools are excited to have the President speak at their commencement, one can imagine that a President’s alma mater is ecstatic to have a particularly successful student return. Although most Presidents who returned to their alma mater graduated several decades prior, the graduates would be eager to hear of the stories from the President as a student. After all, the President knew precisely what it was like as a student—running from one class to the next, cramming for final exams in the library—and so on. Crossing the generation gap to relate with the newest batch of alums thus became the biggest challenge for the President.

On June 7, 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower returned to his alma-mater, West Point. Eisenhower, who graduated in 1915, experienced a prolific life in the past four decades up to that point. Amongst his pre-Presidential accomplishments, he led American troops in World War II and served as President of Columbia University after the war. As President, many of the 1955 graduates felt a sense of pride to call West Point their alma mater. Eisenhower began: “General Bryan, members of this graduating class, West Point Alumni, ladies and gentlemen: In the year 1915 I was one of a hundred sixty-four cadets who through four West Point years had eagerly looked forward--just as you of this class have done--to the moment of graduation. Actually we thought of it as liberation; but forty busy years have somewhat changed that youthful viewpoint” (Eisenhower, 1955).

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