Notre Dame commencement speeches, then and now

With President Obama poised to deliver the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, this seems like a good time to recall the commencement address President Reagan delivered there on May 17, 1981. Here’s how Reagan concluded his remarks:

The years ahead are great ones for this country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization. The West won’t contain communism, it will transcend communism. It won’t bother to. . .denounce it, it will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.

William Faulkner, at a Nobel Prize ceremony some time back, said man “would not only [merely] endure: he will prevail” against the modern world because he will return to “the old verities and truths of the heart.” And then Faulkner said of man, “He is immortal because he alone among creatures . . . has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

One can’t say those words — compassion, sacrifice, and endurance — without thinking of the irony that one who so exemplifies them, Pope John Paul II, a man of peace and goodness, an inspiration to the world, would be struck by a bullet from a man towards whom he could only feel compassion and love. It was Pope John Paul II who warned in last year’s encyclical on mercy and justice against certain economic theories that use the rhetoric of class struggle to justify injustice. He said, “In the name of an alleged justice the neighbor is sometimes destroyed, killed, deprived of liberty or stripped of fundamental human rights.”

For the West, for America, the time has come to dare to show to the world that our civilized ideas, our traditions, our values, are not — like the ideology and war machine of totalitarian societies — just a facade of strength. It is time for the world to know our intellectual and spiritual values are rooted in the source of all strength, a belief in a Supreme Being, and a law higher than our own.

When it’s written, history of our time won’t dwell long on the hardships of the recent past. But history will ask — and our answer determine the fate of freedom for a thousand years — Did a nation borne of hope lose hope? Did a people forged by courage find courage wanting? Did a generation steeled by hard war and a harsh peace forsake honor at the moment of great climactic struggle for the human spirit?

If history asks such questions, it also answers them. And the answers are to be found in the heritage left by generations of Americans before us. They stand in silent witness to what the world will soon know and history someday record: that in the [its] third century, the American Nation came of age, affirmed its leadership of free men and women serving selflessly a vision of man with God, government for people, and humanity at peace.

A few years ago, an Australian Prime Minister, John Gorton, said, “I wonder if anybody ever thought what the situation for the comparatively small nations in the world would be if there were not in existence the United States, if there were not this giant country prepared to make so many sacrifices.” This is the noble and rich heritage rooted in great civil ideas of the West, and it is yours.

My hope today is that in the years to come — and come it shall — when it’s your time to explain to another generation the meaning of the past and thereby hold out to them their promise of the future, that you’ll recall the truths and traditions of which we’ve spoken. It is these truths and traditions that define our civilization and make up our national heritage. And now, they’re yours to protect and pass on.

I have one more hope for you: when you do speak to the next generation about these things, that you will always be able to speak of an America that is strong and free, to find in your hearts an unbounded pride in this much-loved country, this once and future land, this bright and hopeful nation whose generous spirit and great ideals the world still honors.

Congratulations, and God bless you.

I’m confident that Obama’s address will contain nice phrases and, perhaps, soaring rhetoric. But will Obama express anything even approaching Reagan’s pride in America? It’s difficult to how, since he clearly does not share it.

Nor is it likely that Obama will side with Pope John Paul II in opposing “certain economic theories that use the rhetoric of class struggle to justify injustice.” For the former “community organizer” has already shown his willingness to use the milder forms of such rhetoric to justify restrictions on economic freedom.

Reagan’s speech at Notre Dame was not a defense of the status quo. In the first half of his address, Reagan was so critical of the current state of American affairs that he joked, “Now, after those remarks, don’t decide that you’d better turn your diploma back in so you can stay another year on the campus.” In fact, Reagan viewed himself as leading a “revolution” just as surlely as Obama does.

But the Reagan revolution was based on an appeal to “the noble and rich heritage rooted in great civil ideas of the West” and “left by generations of Americans before us,” as well as to “the source of all strength, a belief in a Supreme Being, and a law higher than our own.”

The Obama revolution, skeptical as it is about the nobility of our heritage and unwilling to invoke a Supreme Being, is based on an appeal to European notions of social justice and to the opinions of Europeans and other foreigners generally. Like Reagan (and like most other commencement speakers), Obama can be expected to implore the graduating class to do great things. But I doubt that he will implore them to “be able to speak of an America that is strong and free, to find in your hearts an unbounded pride in this much-loved country, this once and future land, this bright and hopeful nation whose generous spirit and great ideals the world still honors.”

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