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From the Archives: Presidential appearances on campus

, , and | Monday, September 7, 2020

Diane Park | The Observer

In October of 2019, University President Fr. John Jenkins announced the first 2020 presidential debate, scheduled for Sept. 29, 2020, would take place on Notre Dame’s campus. The University has since withdrawn as the host of the debate, but even the initial announcement elicited a diverse set of reactions across campus — sounds of excitement, discourse on the logistics of the event, even conversations concerning students’ free speech at Notre Dame.

But despite the University’s withdrawal from the debate, the 2020 presidential race rages on — and as September begins, one can’t help but wonder what campus might look like this month if the debate were still a reality.

This edition of From the Archives takes a look at what could have been, diving into past presidential appearances at Notre Dame — and the excitement, discourse and contention that ensued.


Carter commencement speech spurs ticket controversy

March 1, 1977 | Observer Staff Report | March 8, 1977 | Observer Editorial

Researched by Rebecca Fried

On March 1, 1977, The Observer reported President Jimmy Carter would deliver Notre Dame’s 1977 commencement address on May 22. Carter would be the second U.S. president to speak at a Notre Dame commencement, with President Eisenhower being the first in 1960. There was widespread excitement among students and faculty in the months leading up to the event. 

Observer archives, March 1, 1977

But as May 22 drew closer, some students found fault with the University’s handling of its commencement exercises. The announcement of Carter’s speech brought with it an increased demand for tickets and limited seating capacity, and as a result, the University provided only five tickets for each graduating senior.

As noted in a May 4, 1977 news article, “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.” 

In reaction to the insufficient ticket numbers, senior Marty White (‘77) and senior class president Rob Tully (‘77) authored a petition calling upon Fr. Hesburgh to move the ceremony to the stadium, where more seating would be available. Although the petition received 850 signatures, Hesburgh vetoed the proposal, citing “several difficulties” with the plan.

But Carter’s notoriety led to more than just logistical issues. On March 8th, the Observer Editorial Board wrote of the “strong possibility” of the year’s commencement ceremony becoming “The Jimmy Carter Show,” as Carter’s presence might easily overshadow seniors’ accomplishments.

“We are proud that President Carter will join in the ceremony by giving the commencement address, but we hope the proper focus will be placed on the students who worked four years for this honor,” the Editorial Board wrote. “And after the sacrifices they have made, we hope that it will not be the families of these students who are left to watch a possible Jimmy Carter Show on television.” 

Despite the controversy surrounding the ceremony, the University’s 1977 commencement saw an increase in student attendance. “Usually there is a 90 percent return rate for graduates, but this year it is 97 percent,” noted senior class president Rob Tully.

Contention surrounds Reagan’s visit to Notre Dame for stamp dedication 

March 10, 1988 | Chris Bednarski | March 8, 1988 | Peter Walshe | March 10, 1988 | Donald Murphy  

Researched by Maggie Clark

The cover story of The Observer on March 10, 1988 highlighted President Ronald Reagan’s visit to Notre Dame. The purpose of Reagan’s visit was unique — not for a commencement speech or a football game — rather, he came to speak at a dedication ceremony at the Joyce Center for a Knute Rockne commemorative stamp.

Observer archives, March 10, 1988

As explained by the Observer news editor at the time, Chris Bednarski, Reagan had an unlikely connection with Notre Dame and the legendary coach. Prior to the presidency, during his time as an actor, Reagan starred as Notre Dame football player George Gipp in the 1940 film “Knute Rockne, All American.”

In his speech, Reagan praised Rockne, referring to the former coach as a “revered name” and “a symbol of greatness.” Of course, he also reminisced on his iconic role, which he called “a young actor’s dream.”

Reagan’s 1988 ceremonial visit brought a literal meaning to the popular phrase “God, Country, Notre Dame.” However, the President’s presence was an unlikely event of contention. 

Two demonstrations against Reagan’s visit were planned for the same day as his speech — members of Pax Christi-Notre Dame, a local chapter of the international Catholic peace movement, planned to march with banners and distribute flyers outside of the Joyce Center, in opposition of Raegan’s confrontational foreign policy.

A second group, calling themselves the “Ad Hoc Committee to Greet Reagan,” planned to march from downtown South Bend to the Joyce Center, objecting to the President’s support of aid for the Contra rebel groups in Nicaragua.

The Observer also published many Letters to the Editor pertaining to Reagan’s presence on campus. Prior to the stamp dedication ceremony, Director of African Studies Peter Walshe wrote a letter published on March 8, 1988 criticizing the school’s choice to invite Reagan to speak. Walshe claims the visit was a “deep embarrassment for many at the University,” due to Reagan’s “dismal” handling of apartheid in South Africa. 

In another letter published on March 10, 1988, Donald Murphy vehemently disagreed with Walshe. Murphy claimed the visit was a source of pride and honor for Notre Dame. Murphy also called Walshe’s adamance against Reagan “disrespectful,” urging readers to acknowledge the lack of politicization behind the visit. 

“However wrong Mr. Reagan may be in some of his policies,” Murphy wrote, “this gives no reason to view his visit as an embarrassment.”

Bush commencement speech sparks debate over Catholic values

May 18, 2001 | Kerry Smith | May 18, 2001 | Jacqueline Vaught Brogan

Researched by Jim Moster

In 2001, former University President Fr. Edward Malloy invited President George W. Bush to deliver Notre Dame’s commencement address and receive an honorary degree. The decision sparked immediate controversy in the Notre Dame community.

University of Notre Dame

Peter Walshe, a political science professor, led a group of students and faculty in a protest against Malloy’s decision. Walshe argued that Bush violates Catholic social teaching on four issues: labor, the environment, capital punishment and the military. 

The protestors created a petition stating that Bush’s political positions made him “incapable” of celebrating the University’s values. In addition, the protestors planned to hand out leaflets expressing their disapproval to attendees of the commencement and wear white armbands to signify their opposition.

Malloy believed that Bush’s policy positions were irrelevant to his role in the University’s commencement. The invitation served to “honor the office [Bush] holds, rather than any particular policy choices he makes as our national leader,” wrote the former University president.

Some members of the Notre Dame community took Malloy’s side on the issue. Jacqueline Vaught Brogan, an English professor, wrote a Letter to the Editor in opposition to the protest. Brogan, who considered herself “fairly liberal,” felt that Bush’s presence would prompt constructive dialogue within the community.

“We have serious concerns we really should be discussing with both of our presidents rather than dismissing [Bush] out of hand,” Brogan wrote. 

Although she opposed Bush on several issues, Brogan disagreed that Bush’s policy positions stood in gross contrast to Notre Dame’s values. The protestors, according to Brogan, used hyperbolic language and “reductive generalities” to stifle the discourse. 

Brogan concludes by suggesting that protestors should redirect their energy to issues existing at Notre Dame, such as “low cultural diversity, small numbers of female professors and suspicions of salary inequalities.” Regardless, Brogan conceded that “Father Malloy and the administration should consult with faculty, staff and students for future invitations.”

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