Sunday, May 17, 2009

Much Ado about a Speech

When President Obama was announced as this year’s commencement speaker at the University of Notre Dame . . . well I am sure you have heard by now. It was a betrayal of monumental proportions to invite the pro-choice Obama to speak at a Catholic university. Never mind that he is the President of the United States; the first African-American president at that.

As a Notre Dame alum, I felt . . . jealous. I will be honest. Jealousy was my strongest emotion. “Why on earth didn’t the President speak at my commencement?!” After 6 years of hard graduate work and writing a 358 page book, the speaker at my graduation was Vartan Gregorian, President of the Carnegie Corporation. Granted, Mr. Gregorian did a fine job, however at the time, I only wanted a big, sexy name.

I can honestly tell you that I cannot remember what he said. I also cannot remember what Tim Russert said when I got my MA, and he was a big name. For the record, the former head of the US National Park Service, who gave the commencement address at my undergrad is also a blur. However, I do remember him saying that there are 391 national parks, and I swear to God, he started naming them! He stopped after 10.

My point is this, commencement speakers have two important roles to fill. First, they are the name that you will brag (or not) about later (“Yeah, well so and so spoke at my graduation.”). Second, their speeches should dole out a few words of wisdom and perhaps a few jokes. And they should be short. I do not believe that Obama’s speech will in anyway be “lasting,” “monumental,” or a “deal breaker.”

I do not think that the University of Notre Dame was making any kind of statement when it asked President Obama to give a commencement address. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Carter, Reagan, Bush all spoke at Notre Dame graduations. And if you can get the President of the United States to speak at your graduation, you get him. The President only gives 2 commencement speeches a year. 2. Wouldn’t you want your university to be one of them?

Certainly the abortion debate resonates on a Catholic campus. But Obama’s stance on war and poverty are totally in line with Catholic social teaching. Father Theodore Hesburgh, former President of the University of Notre Dame and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was a strident member of the civil rights movement. I am certain that he will be happy to see President Obama, even though the two may differ on this issue. Notre Dame may be a Catholic University, but it is a university. Debate should be encouraged and not squelched.

When it comes to Presidential speeches, SOMEONE is going to protest. In fact, when Bush spoke at Notre Dame, there was also a protest; an anti-war protest. Come to think of it several of my friends went to that protest.

So, yeah, I am going to watch the speech and be jealous. Those kids have no idea how good they have it. Try to impress your friends with the number of national parks in the US. Does not really work.


Ms. Lolly said...

This is so funny. I just got done talking to my friend who graduated with her doctorate this year from ASU and all the doctoral students got to shake his hand. I, however, was not jealous :-)

But you'd love the news coverage here. You'd think this was an issue of actual relevance the way the talking heads are going on about it.

And isn't Obama the first mixed race President and not the first African American President?

I was visiting a commune smoking weed instead of attending my MA graduation so what do I know.

Snooker said...

Interesting side note on the ASU commencement speech, they didn't give him an honorary degree. There was some stink about that, as it is quite customary. But I understand that he handled it well.