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Bartlet for Commencement

| Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The coming end to the school year brings with it the annual challenge of finding a suitable speaker for Notre Dame’s Commencement. The announcement is always a lightning rod for controversy, with speakers routinely criticized on their commitment to sharing our values — Catholicism, love of education and antipathy towards Michigan. Of course, I simply can’t resist involving myself in the discussion. I therefore nominate my choice, a Notre Dame alumnus with a proud history of political and intellectual achievement — former President Josiah Bartlet.

In 1997, “Jed” Bartlet was safely ensconced in his New Hampshire governorship, unconcerned with the upcoming presidential election. All that changed when former Labor Secretary Leo McGarry approached him with a simple three-word phras: “Bartlet for America.” After a legendary primary upset against John Hoynes, Bartlet went on to a victory in the 1998 general election against incumbent President Owen Taggart. Despite the revelation of his battle with multiple sclerosis, he was reelected in a landslide (both electoral and popular) over Florida Governor Robert Ritchie. He currently lives on his farm in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Even on the merits of his personal story, President Bartlet is an ideal choice for the Commencement address. During his two terms, Bartlet was forced to contend with an assassination attempt by white supremacists, the kidnapping of his daughter by Qumari terrorists and a war with Canada. Despite these challenges, he is best remembered for the hopeful spirit and idealism he brought to the White House, in contrast with the doom-and-gloom eschatology we so often get from Washington. But in truly Sorkinesque style, I suggest that we bring President Bartlet to Commencement for the following three reasons:

President Bartlet is a first-rate speaker. Always ready with a quip, Bartlet’s rapid-fire speaking style is music to the ears. Whether he’s laying out an agenda for America’s future or delivering a verbal beatdown, his calm, reassuring voice never fails to move the listener. Perhaps the most poignant speech he was called upon to deliver in his two terms followed the bombing at Kennison State University. Recounting the courage of the three students who died while attempting to save others, Bartlet declared, “The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight, but every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we’re reminded that that capacity may well be limitless.” No other potential speaker could possibly inspire or challenge our graduating class to half the extent that Jed Bartlet will.

President Bartlet is a brilliant intellectual mind. Bartlet graduated Notre Dame summa cum laude with a degree in American studies and holds a doctorate from the London School of Economics. He speaks four languages and has traveled the world from Qumar to Kundu. During his academic career, he wrote “The Theory and Practice of Macroeconomics in Developing Countries” and won a Nobel Prize in economics. At the drop of a hat, he will gladly enumerate and detail the U.S. National Parks to all nearby listeners — whether they want him to or not. In an age too often fraught with anti-intellectualism, bringing Bartlet to campus would proudly declare Notre Dame’s status as a city on a hill for knowledge and reason.

President Bartlet is also a model of compassionate Catholicism. Though he is a fantastically well-read theologian (who in fact came to Notre Dame with aspirations to the clergy), Bartlet is never one to “blow a trumpet … as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and streets, so that they may be praised by others,” as Jesus condemned in the book of Matthew. Indeed, he is known for shutting down those who use faith like a baseball bat. His is a quiet, personal relationship with God that informed many of the choices of his presidency. It may seem strange to describe Bartlet as a Catholic role model, as he memorably had a severe crisis of faith following a personal tragedy, to the point that he screamed at God “to hell with your punishments! To hell with you!” Yet though his faith faltered, it did not fall — we can all find something to learn from his trial.

We deserve a speaker with this level of oratory talent, intelligence and faith experience. Can we please extend an invitation to President Bartlet to speak to us this May? (There will, of course, need to be special accommodations made so that he may walk while he talks for the entirety of his address.) Or, failing that, can we at least get Martin Sheen?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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