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The Obama controversy in perspective

Jenn Metz | Sunday, May 10, 2009

Roosevelt. Eisenhower. Kennedy. Ford. Carter. Reagan. Bush. Bush. President Barack Obama will be the ninth United States president to receive an honorary degree from Notre Dame. The University has long-invited standing presidents to speak at Commencement, and has honored others at special convocations. Notre Dame podiums have provided the launch pad for major policy addresses from some and have amplified perhaps two of the most famous commencement addresses ever delivered. While the controversy surrounding honoring Obama at a Catholic university has created an uproar in recent weeks, it must be put in perspective.Obama is not the first pro-choice politician to receive an award from or speak at the University. The visits of two politicians – then-New York Governor and Catholic Mario Cuomo, who delivered a speech in defense of his liberal politics and pro-choice stance, and then-Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who received the 1992 Laetare Medal – mark key points in the University’s history where its identity as a Catholic institution was called into question. Students, alumni and the national Catholic community made their way into the Viewpoint section then as they have today, always continuing the discussion of what it means to be a university that is Catholic in a secular world. A tour of past presidential and other controversial political visits in Notre Dame’s history is presented, in order to help examing the circumstances the of Obama’s pending visit.

Dwight Eisenhower, 1960The first United States president to deliver a University Commencement address spoke for 20 minutes on June 5, 1960 to the Notre Dame graduating class. President Dwight Eisenhower interrupted his 45th U.S. Military Academy class reunion to make the trip to South Bend. His speech looked forward to a government on the brink of both social and political change set with the task of striking the right balance.”We do not want governmental programs which, advanced, often falsely, in the guise of promoting the general welfare destroy in the individual those priceless qualities of self-dependence, self-confidence, and a readiness to risk his judgment against the trends of the crowd,” Eisenhower said. “We do not want a government that assures the security and general welfare of the nation and its people in concord with the philosophy of Abraham Lincoln, who insisted that government should do, and do only, the things which people cannot do for themselves.”

John F. Kennedy, 1950, 1961The nation’s only Catholic president delivered the winter Commencement address and received an honorary degree from the University as a U.S. Congressman in 1950.He received the Laetare Medal – Notre Dame’s highest honor – in a White House ceremony in 1961.Kennedy’s grandfather, John F. Fitzgerald, and father, Joseph P. Kennedy, also served as University Commencement speakers in 1915 and 1941, respectively. His brother-in-law, former Peace Corps Director R. Sargent Shriver, spoke to the class of 1961.

Jimmy Carter, 1977″I want to speak to you today about the strands that connect our actions overseas with our essential character as a nation. I believe we can have a foreign policy that is democratic, that is based on fundamental values, and that uses power and influence, which we have for humane purposes. We can also have a foreign policy that the American people both support and, for a change, know about and understand.” President Jimmy Carter, in what many regard as the key foreign policy address of his presidency, spoke the words above during the 1977 Notre Dame Commencement exercises.His appearance was announced in a March 1, 1977 Observer report that said Carter accepted the invitation then-University President Fr. Theodore Hesburgh issued Feb. 8, 1977. It was Carter’s third trip to Notre Dame.Carter’s coming to the University, according to The Observer’s annual compilation of the top-ten stories of the year published in the May 4, 1977 edition, was at first well-received by seniors.The only noticeable complaint: the lack of extra tickets for the ceremony.”The seniors’ and University community’s initial pleasure at having the President of the United States speak at their graduation exercises was changed to displeasure when they learned that each senior will receive only five tickets for the exercises,” the report said.A petition delivered to Hesburgh with 850 signatures suggested moving the ceremony to the Notre Dame Stadium to accommodate more guests. Carter spoke on May 22, 1977 of the diminishing threat from the Soviet Union and promoted the creation of new global alliances, championed human rights – policies based on the “new reality of a politically awakening world.”He also celebrated Hesburgh’s 25th anniversary as University President during the visit. “[Fr.] Hesburgh has spoken more consistently and more effectively in the support of the rights of human beings than any other person I know,” Carter said.

Ronald Reagan, 1981The Gipper, the president.In his first public appearance after a March 1981 assassination attempt, President Ronald Reagan, associated with the Irish after playing one of their football legends in the film “Knute Rockne, All-American,” immortalizing the phrase “Let’s win one for the Gipper,” spoke at the 1981 Commencement.Reagan vowed to win one for the private sector in his Commencement speech, calling for a smaller national government. Reagan was invited to Commencement by then-University President Fr. Theodore Hesburgh to deliver the principal address and receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. His “Rockne” co-star, Pat O’Brien, also received an honorary degree. After the initial announcement March 10, 1981, columnists in The Observer, like Anthony Walton in a March 11, 1981 article, criticized Hesburgh for the invitation, not being able to reconcile how Notre Dame – “the university with a conscience” – could invite Reagan, who pushed for a peace-time military acceleration in El Salvador, opposed strong gun-control laws and endorsed capital punishment. It wasn’t until April 27, 1981 – just around Reagan’s 100th day in office – that the real controversy over his selection became apparent. Indications that the president, after recovering from a gunshot wound to the chest, would still be coming to campus to deliver the Commencement address, dismayed some students. Though, according to an Observer column that day, at that time the appearance was not confirmed by the University or the White House. Yet the president’s speechwriters were already at work. The next day, The Observer reported on an ad hoc committee formed in response to the scheduled appearance – Students Concerned about Commencement (SCC) – that planned to gather April 29, 1981 in a protest rally. The Letters to the Editor fell under the title “Reagan dialogue is renewed” and examined both sides of the debate. “We feel that Reagan’s presence is in one sense an honor, but more a challenge to Notre Dame,” Will O’Brien, a member of the SCC said in the report. “In our perception, Reagan’s appearance at commencement would be incompatible with what we sense the University to be about.” He compared Reagan’s appearance to Carter’s four years before, saying the two presidents’ visits to campus point out the fact that “Notre Dame is an institution of national prestige and influence,” but said the SCC felt Reagan’s actions opposed the value placed on social justice in Catholic moral teaching. The rally drew a crowd of 800, according to an April 30, 1981 Observer report. Those in attendance appeared to be equally split – half protesters wearing white arm bands in protest and the other half counter-demonstrators, wearing pictures of the presidents and holding signs with slogans like, “Don’t give the Gipp no lip.”Reagan addressed nearly 2,000 students at the 136th Commencement May 17, 1981, speaking of the growing need for a stronger national defense and predicting, “the West will not contain Communism, it will transcend Communism.”We’ll dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written,” he said.

Mario Cuomo, 1984In a speech delivered Sept. 13, 1984 titled “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective,” then-Governor of New York Mario Cuomo said the subject he was asked to speak on was “difficult.” “Must politics and religion in America divide our loyalties?” he asked. “Does the ‘separation between church and state’ imply separation between religion and politics?”In his speech, Cuomo attempted to clarify the position religion has in public affairs. He responded to criticism by bishops by defending his stance on abortion rights which were made apparent in his keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. “The Catholic public official lives the political truth that most Catholics through mores of American history have accepted and insisted on: the truth that to assure our freedom we must allows others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful,” he said in the speech at Notre Dame.In a Sept. 13, 1984 Viewpoint, guest columnist Chris Julka, claimed: “Cuomo leaves Catholicism in the pew.” Last month, in a March 30 New York Times post on its “The Lede” news blog, Cuomo was interviewed, putting President Barack Obama’s situation in 2009 in comparison with his in 1984.The main difference: Obama is not Catholic. According to the article, Cuomo “said Notre Dame should honor Obama because he is the president and shares the Catholic mission of wanting to make the world a better place.”Cuomo said Obama should not avoid the controversy surrounding his appearance in his Commencement address, suggesting he say something like “I’m not asking you to agree with me. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to tell you about the values I believe in and talk about how much common ground we share” in his interview with the Times.

George H.W. Bush and Daniel Moynihan, 1992The announcements were made in the March 30, 1992 edition of The Observer: both President George H.W. Bush and then-Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D-N.Y.) would be featured at the 147th annual Commencement.Students had mixed reactions to the Bush announcement, according to a March 31, 1992 Observer report, because he would be speaking as both president and presidential candidate and his speech had the potential to be politicized. Many questioned, as then-government professor David Leege did, “the propriety an invitation during a campaign year,” as it might come across as endorsing the president for reelection. Others called Bush’s acceptance an honor for the student body and the University. That week, Viewpoint filled with Letters to the Editor for and against Bush’s appearance at Commencement, but the outcry seemed tame compared to the opposition sparked by the announcement Moynihan would be awarded the Laetare Medal. “Moynihan’s career uniquely combines intellectual and political acumen,” then-University President Fr. Edward “Monk” Malloy said in a March 30 Observer report. “His passion for scholarship has made him sensible of the realties of state, sensitive to the cry of the poor and commendably supportive of higher education.” National bishops and alumni especially reacted negatively to the news because of Moynihan’s pro-choice voting record on abortion.Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop John D’Arcy, who will not attend the 2009 Commencement, took the same course of action in 1992, saying in a May 15 report his presence there “could be interpreted as an approval of [Moynihan’s] position relative to the issue of pre-born life.” Bush spoke to Notre Dame graduates about family values and community service during the Sesquicentennial Year Commencement exercises. The American family is an “institution under siege,” Bush said in his address.”Today’s crisis will have to be addressed by millions of Americans at the personal, individual level for governmental programs to be effective. And the federal government, of course, must do everything it can do, but the point is, government alone is simply not enough,” he said.

George W. Bush, 2001 After Notre Dame alumni, including then-National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, recruited President George W. Bush to address the class of 2001 at Commencement. Another controversy erupted, again expressing the concern the University was neglecting its Catholic values and traditions with the invitation.The Republican president, who received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Notre Dame, was protested against because his stance on capital punishment, labor, the environment and the military were seen in contrary to Catholic moral teaching. A petition, signed by a group of faculty, students and alumni led by then-faculty member Peter Walshe, gathered 667 signatures and Walshe organized a two-part demonstration to protest Bush’s appearance as Commencement. Walshe, the author of the petition, said in a May 18, 2001 report the “petition objects to a range of policies being pursued by President Bush. But it let’s the president off too lightly.” In his speech, Bush reported on the United States’ commitment to the poor and said Notre Dame, as a Catholic university, “carries forward a great tradition of social teaching. It calls on all of us, Catholic and non-Catholic, to honor family, to protect life in all its stages, to serve and uplift the poor. This university is more than a community of scholars, it is a community of conscience.”

Barack Obama, 2009Eight years later, another president, this time a Democrat, will face a mixed crowd in the Joyce Center.He will receive an honorary degree and address the graduates, adding another chapter to the University’s history as place where leaders come to speak on the issues facing the nation. More lines will also be written, after Commencement May 17, about what President Barack Obama’s presence on campus will mean for the debate over Notre Dame’s identity as an American, Catholic university.

Madeline Buckley contributed to this report.