The Politics of Commencement Speeches

In Politics

‘Tis the season for pomp and circumstance and politics.

As the country’s young graduates prepare to go out into the world, their commencement speakers are not just searching for inspiring words but weighing whether and how to address the nation’s intense and contentious political mood.

Characteristically, President Trump hasn’t shied from the latter. In his commencement address to Coast Guard Academy graduates Thursday, he used the occasion to air grievances in responding to yet another self-inflicted controversy.

“Over the course of your life, you will find that things are not always fair. You will find that things happen to you that you do not deserve and that are not always warranted, but you have to put your head down and fight, fight, fight,” he told the class of 2017.

“Look at the way I’ve been treated lately, especially by the media,” the president said at the Connecticut service academy. “No politician in history—and I say this with great surety—has been treated worse or more unfairly. You can’t let them get you down.”

That portion of the speech surely raised eyebrows — four of Trump’s predecessors have been assassinated — and his sense of self-persecution and peril seemed to lack proportion, given that the graduates will put their lives at risk in service to the country. The address came as the president was on defense over reports of him sharing classified information with Russian officials, and his firing of FBI Director James Comey.

Last week, Trump gave his first commencement address as president at Liberty University, a nod to the evangelical support he earned during the campaign. The university’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., was a key surrogate. “The future belongs to the people who follow their heart no matter what the critics say,” the president told the graduates.

But Trump isn’t the only one mixing politics with commencement oratory. In her address at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Sen. Elizabeth Warren poked at the commander-in-chief. Referencing an apparent UMass student activity called “Elizabeth Warren’s Commencement Speech Drinking Game,” the Massachusetts Democrat joked that “Fireball is a nickname that Donald Trump uses on Twitter, not a beverage to be consumed by distinguished college graduates.”

Warren implored her audience to “study up because knowing something about an issue makes a difference. So go online and read the facts. Not the alternative facts, the real facts.” And she pointedly told the graduates to fight for what they believe in, underscoring the principle “that no one, no one in this country is above the law and we need a Justice Department, not an Obstruction of Justice Department.”

Commencement speeches have become politically charged for students, too, with the undemocratic principle of intolerance sometimes holding sway. And it’s not a new trend. Condoleezza Rice withdrew from a planned speech at Rutgers University in 2014 after weeks of student protests. This year, students at historically black Bethune-Cookman University booed and turned their backs on commencement speaker Betsy DeVos, the education secretary.

In an address at Howard University last year, then-President Obama decried student efforts to have speakers disinvited from campus. “Don’t do that,” he said. “Listen, engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them, teach them, beat them on the battlefield of ideas.”

During his commencement speech at Rutgers last May, in the middle of the all-consuming presidential campaign, Obama took a not so subtle swipe at then-candidate Trump: “Isolating or disparaging Muslims, suggesting they should be treated differently when entering this country — that is not just a betrayal of our values, that’s not just a betrayal of who we are, it would alienate the very communities at home and abroad that are our most important partners in the fight against violent extremism.”

Obama gave 25 commencement addresses over the course of two terms, playing his part in the long history of such presidential speeches. Some have been used to frame current events and offer hope to the next generation. Some have been designed to be newsworthy, even historic.

John F Kennedy delivered his “strategy of peace” speech at American University’s commencement in 1963, when he called for a nuclear test ban treaty. Lyndon Johnson laid the groundwork for affirmative action with an address to Howard graduates in 1965, a year after passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Shortly after surviving an assassination attempt, Ronald Reagan evoked the Cold War in his 1981 address at Notre Dame. And George W. Bush told the U.S. Military Academy class of 2002 that Americans should be ready for “preemptive action” in a world torn asunder by terrorism. Less than a year later, the U.S. would invade Iraq.

“We didn’t let the news cycle [determine] what we were going to say, but a couple of times, we took on a couple controversies and decided to plunge in,” explains Obama speechwriter Cody Keenan.

“You just want to give them some good life lessons, something good to hang onto, something memorable,” Keenan says about writing commencement addresses for presidents. “You have a bigger platform where people are going to watch you for a day, so you can take on a political issue if you want or policy if you want. But we always tried to root it in the graduates, and try to tell some of their stories.”

Peter Wehner, who served three Republican presidents and was deputy director of speechwriting in the George W. Bush administration, says the commencement venue offers a different kind of platform and can allow presidents to transcend the politics of the moment. 

“It’s the nature of the occasion that allows for them to give a more reflective speech … to use those speeches to try and pull back from the day-to-day and also to pull back from some of the partisan politics that goes on and try to put the presidency in a larger context,” Wehner says. “You don’t want to go to a graduation and give a harsh, divisive, partisan political speech. … You owe something to the graduates and their parents and the institution.”

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