POTUS at Commencement

by Joshua H. Liberatore

POTUS’s first of what will surely be many commencement addresses during his tenure did not come without controversy and plenty of media disgorgement, but he took both opportunities to embrace the hard path that we’ve come to associate with his almost missionary zeal for self-improvement and open acknowledgement of challenge and strife. In the process, POTUS welcomed the rhetorical tensions his appearances seemed to invite and held forth on topics close to his heart. His journey began at Arizona State University, whose regents declined to offer POTUS the customary honorary degree based on the relative skimp – in their judgment – of his resume. But POTUS did more than make light of any potential awkwardness:

Now, in all seriousness, I come here not to dispute the suggestion that I haven’t yet achieved enough in my life. [Laughter] First of all, Michelle concurs with that assessment. [Laughter] She has a long list of things that I have not yet done waiting for me when I get home. But more than that, I come to embrace the notion that I haven’t done enough in my life; I heartily concur. I come to affirm that one’s title, even a title like President of the United States, says very little about how well one’s life has been led; that no matter how much you’ve done or how successful you’ve been, there’s always more to do, always more to learn, and always more to achieve. (May 13, 2009)

In fact, any close study of POTUS’s public remarks in the past few weeks bear out this humble message in more than just outline. More and more, audiences – at events ranging from DNC fundraisers to meetings with foreign heads of state – can hear POTUS offer some version of “pleased but not satisfied, confident but not content.” POTUS is no perfectionist, of course (urging us not “to make the perfect the enemy of the essential” is one of his favorite turns of phrase), but he certainly doesn’t shy from constructive self-laceration either, especially if a larger lesson can be strained from the exhales of criticism. But neither is this mere presidential self-pity, which Clinton long ago turned into a national charade:

And this is not just true for individuals; it’s also true for this Nation. In recent years, in many ways, we’ve become enamored with our own past success, lulled into complacency by the glitter of our own achievements. We’ve become accustomed to the title of “military superpower,” forgetting the qualities that got us there, not just the power of our weapons, but the discipline and valor and the code of conduct of our men and women in uniform. The Marshall Plan and the Peace Corps and all those initiatives that show our commitment to working with other nations to pursue the ideals of opportunity and equality and freedom that have made us who we are, that’s what made us a superpower. (May 13, 2009)

Confronting head-on the very theme of his hosts’ rebuff, as POTUS gradually built his point to the graduates of ASU, he continually returned to the powerful recognition that one’s “body of work” is never complete. Rather than allowing ourselves to wallow under the burden that candid introspection – I am the President and yet haven’t achieved my goals, we are a great power but not the shining beacon we often believe ourselves to be – seems to convey onto our shoulders, we must, as POTUS argued, use certain challenge and apparent defeat to find a new center, a new point of analysis.

So class of 2009, that’s what building a body of work is all about. It’s about the daily labor, the many individual acts, the choices large and small that add up over time, over a lifetime, to a lasting legacy. That’s what you want on your tombstone. It’s about not being satisfied with the latest achievement, the latest gold star, because the one thing I know about a body of work is that it’s never finished. It’s cumulative; it deepens and expands with each day that you give your best, each day that you give back and contribute to the life of your community and your nation. You may have setbacks, and you may have failures, but you’re not done; you’re not even getting started, not by a long shot. (May 13, 2009)

At Notre Dame, where the controversy was not only more acute but the political stakes a lot higher, POTUS employed a similar approach. A virtual storm of hand-wringing and worry had gathered over the past few months since the moment POTUS’s invitation to the country’s most prestigious Catholic university was made public. POTUS’s policies and views concerning abortion and stem cell research made his appearance, many contended, at best inappropriate, at worst sacrilegious. All Catholics, the logic went, would and should take offense, despite the fact that 54 percent of American Catholics voted for POTUS, knowing his positions well in advance. Notre Dame’s own president, Rev. John I Jenkins, did not skirt the issue in his thoughtful introduction:

Most of the debate has centered on Notre Dame’s decision to invite and honor the President; less attention had been focused on the President’s decision to accept. President Obama has come to Notre Dame though we he knows full well that we fully support the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life and that we oppose his policies on abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Others might have avoided this venue for that reason. But President Obama is not one who stops talking to those who differ with him. Mr. President, this is a principle we share. (May 17, 2009)

POTUS’s later joked that Father Jenkins “stole all my best lines,” but was visibly gratified that he’d been credited with the good-faith courage to come to an institution formally opposed to a significant (but certainly not defining) part of his platform. Clearly, Jenkins wasn’t hiding from the controversy or the disagreement at its core either. He was, in fact, reiterating the essential discord in a very public way, but positioning it within just the kind of intellectual and moral context POTUS prefers. And POTUS ran with it:

Unfortunately, finding that common ground, recognizing that our fates are tied up, as Dr. King said, in a “single garment of destiny,” is not easy. And part of the problem, of course, lies in the imperfections of man: our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos, all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin. We too often seek advantage over others. We cling to outworn prejudice and fear those who are unfamiliar. Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism, in which the world is necessarily a zero-sum game. The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manner of justification for their own privilege in the face of poverty and injustice. And so, for all our technological and scientific advances, we see here in this country and around the globe violence and want and strife that would seem sadly familiar to those in ancient times. (May 17, 2009)

The principal “outworn prejudice” POTUS had in mind that day, as occasional shouting and some rude heckling in the audience was overwhelmed by cheers and chants of embarrassed but triumphant support, was the notion that just because we disagree doesn’t mean we can’t be civil, just because our ideas clash doesn’t mean we can’t share a space, just because the debate is tough and perhaps irreconcilable doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have it. On the contrary, those are the very debates we must always engage in most vigorously, both in the privacy of our hearts and what Al Gore called in Assault on Reason “the public square”:

The soldier and the lawyer may both love this country with equal passion, and yet reach very different conclusions on the specific steps needed to protect us from harm. The gay activist and the evangelical pastor may both deplore the ravages of HIV/AIDS, but find themselves unable to bridge the cultural divide that might unite their efforts. Those who speak out against stem cell research may be rooted in an admirable conviction about the sacredness of life, but so are the parents of a child with juvenile diabetes who are convinced that their son’s or daughter’s hardships might be relieved. (May 17, 2009)

Some will call this passive naiveté, or the hedging of an Ivory Tower intellectual; some will accuse POTUS of avoiding the issue or playing both sides; some will (and indeed did) not listen or read to his whole speech and contend that he shirked from using the word “abortion” (in fact, he used it seven times). Some will see in POTUS’s words the youthful idealism of the inexperienced community organizer at work, blind to the political realities of his rhetoric. On the contrary, POTUS’s main thrust was notably pragmatic:

That’s when we begin to say, maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually, that it has both moral and spiritual dimensions. So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions; let’s reduce unintended pregnancies. Let’s make adoption more available. Let’s provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women. Those are things we can do. (May 17, 2009)

What do we do when we can’t agree? We must dig deeper. We must shed the masks of ideology and find common ground in specific actions. We must flee the protection of comforting labels – Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, pro-life and pro-choice. After all, nobody’s calling himself “pro-abortion” or “anti-choice” – the debate would be so much simpler! Otherwise, “the truth eludes us,” as Catholic thinker Thomas Merton warned. POTUS’s broad-minded plea to the class of 2009, at both ASU and Notre Dame, recalls a passage from New Seeds of Contemplation:

Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied. With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them. If we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it.

Given the tenor of POTUS’s two commencement speeches, and the trying moments that form their thematic backdrop, “we [have] finally come to need it.” The bigger question is: Do we have the guts to use it constructively? For our work is not done.

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