What we can learn from McCain and Obama's Northwestern commencement speeches

    Read the text of John McCain’s 2005 speech to graduates here, and Barack Obama’s 2006 speech here. Photos courtesy of Northwestern University.
    “Who is responsible for monitoring and promoting human rights? Every one of us. Not just policymakers in Washington. Not just Human Rights watch and Freedom Watch and Amnesty International. But every American citizen. Each of you has the responsibility to promote this cause that is greater than your self interest.” – John McCain

    “Each and every one of these challenges call for an America that is more purposeful, more grown-up than the America that we have today. An America that reflects the lessons that have helped so many of its people mature in their own lives. An America that’s about not just each of us, but all of us. An America that takes great risks in the face of greater odds. An America that, above all, perseveres.” – Barack Obama

    While last year’s graduating class might disagree, Northwestern has a knack for bringing commencement speakers with some clout. At least, it did in 2005 and 2006: In back-to-back years, the two men who would go on to run in this year’s epic, overlong and wildly entertaining presidential campaign came to impart some advice on departing Northwestern seniors.

    It’s interesting to look back at those two speeches, even if it doesn’t shed a whole ton of light on the kinds of presidents John McCain or Barack Obama could be. If anything, it confirms our impressions of the sorts of campaigns they’ve run. Maybe it’s my bias speaking, but it’s pretty clear which words could be used to sum up the talks. Obama’s speech: inspiring, inclusive, Obama-centric. McCain’s: kill-joy.

    Even though Obama wouldn’t announce his candidacy for another eight months, the themes that have characterized his campaign ran through his 2006 commencement speech. It’s easy to imagine that Obama was, effectively, running in secret at that point, especially given evidence that he’s been targeting the presidency since 2004. Obama’s critics could read the 2006 speech now and contend that even back then he had a “healthy ego” (as he recently told USA Today), as a good portion of his talk held his own life up as a model to be followed by Northwestern grads.

    His message was about empathy and the way it can not only transform personal lives but also inform political action. Drawing from his oft-repeated life narrative about the way he morphed from a selfish, partying kid to an idealistic, problem-solving “community organizer” (the job description gets defined slightly more clearly in the speech), he asserted that the highest form of maturity isn’t knowledge or achievement, but rather the ability “to see the world through those who are different from us — the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.” He got a bit preachy as he yanked the idea of day-to-day morality up into the realm of policy platforms, but you get the sense that the connection in Obama’s mind is genuine: His politics are literally about restoring the idea of the “common good.”

    And, most impressively, Obama clearly wrote his speech for a class of graduating college seniors. He opened and closed by directly referencing a column he read in The Daily Northwestern. He fused the political message with the personal one, speaking about his own experiences right after college. In essence, he recognized his audience and put his argument in terms they would care about — a tactic not that far off from the one he used in last week’s nationally televised infomercial.

    Senator McCain, too, made some well-intended attempts to connect with the group he was addressing. He opened with a bit of self-deprecating humor that referenced his delinquent days in the Naval Academy. And he brought the speech into the classroom with this line: “I suppose that if your political science professor were assigning you a paper, he’d suggest that you define your terms up front.” But he may have gone too far with the poli-sci metaphor: The speech was just as dry and tone-deaf as an A-grade Intro to International Relations paper.

    Out of the galaxy of potential topics to speak about in a commencement address, McCain chose, somewhat inexplicably, to respond to critics of the Iraq War and assert his own vision of U.S. foreign policy as a force for spreading democracy and human rights. As a policy statement, it was eloquent enough. McCain admirably called for swift action to prevent genocide in Darfur (though he hasn’t been the most forceful advocate for that cause in the two-and-a-half years since). Like Obama, he called for graduates to embrace a “cause that is greater than your self interest.”

    But something tells me the speech was written backwards: McCain wanted to state, publicly, his current thoughts about America’s role in the world, and the commencement address was just the most convenient place to do so. It was a speech that could have been delivered anywhere, at any time, tweaked slightly for the audience he had before him. McCain’s critics (myself included) would say that’s a bit like his case for becoming President: He’s taken fairly traditional conservative agenda — one that’s been discredited in many ways over the last eight years — and attempted to dress it up as change. It’s a stretch, but the awkward pitch of the speech could be seen as a symptom of McCain’s mediocre talents for forging a message and speaking to voter’s current concerns.

    Besides, it’s hard to imagine the class of 2005 walking away from commencement feeling much inspired when McCain ended his speech with the solemn, if worthy, quote about “for whom the bell tolls.” But perhaps that was just some straight-talk, and Obama’s closing line about America’s “magnificent journey towards that distant horizon, and a better day” might be empty hope-mongering. The argument about which is more appealing isn’t that different from the argument that will finally end on Tuesday.

    To read the text of the two speeches, click on the graphics below. Word clouds created with Wordle, licensed under Creative Commons.

    The most-used words in Barack Obama’s 2006 NU commencement speech

    The most-used words in John McCain’s 2005 NU commencement speech


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