As a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, I took special interest in the controversy over President Obama's commencement speech, which he delivered in South Bend, Indiana, yesterday. I could see the picketers and processions in my mind, and I was eager to see how he handled the heated situation.
[Note: The controversy involves the President's pro-choice position on abortion and his support of stem cell research, both of which disagree with the pro-life views of the Catholic Church. Notre Dame is a Catholic university.]
Although the controversy continues to swirl, the speech is a model for business writers. Here is why:
- The speech has a clear theme that resounds throughout. His theme is understanding and cooperation to achieve noble goals that benefit all. Not one sentence in the speech detracts from that theme.
- The language brings home the theme again and again:
"No one person, or religion, or nation can meet these challenges alone."
"Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words."
"When people set aside their differences, even for a moment, to work in common effort toward a common goal; when they struggle together, and sacrifice together, and learn from one another–then all things are possible."
- The speech is written for the audience. The President mentioned Notre Dame traditions, quoted and told a relevant story about the former president of Notre Dame (Rev. Theodore Hesburgh), told a story about coming to know and admire a deceased Catholic Archbishop of Chicago (Cardinal Joseph Bernardin) who influenced Obama's spiritual development, and praised the class valedictorian (Brennan Bollman), along with the class of 2009. There was nothing one-size-fits-all about the speech. All the details fit the audience.
- The speech is direct and honest. Rather than skirting the controversy, the speech confronts it:
"We're not going to shy away from things that are uncomfortable sometimes."
"The fact is that at some level the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case . . . with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature."
- The speech begins with a thank you and some ice-breaking, self-deprecating humor. Obama mentioned being only 1 for 2 in terms of getting honorary degrees and needing advice from Father Hesburgh, who is 150 for 150.
- The speech is lofty and inspiring, a perfect match for a graduation. It ends with America continuing on "its precious journey towards that more perfect union."
Beyond everything that made it a fine speech, the commencement address modeled its message of openness, dialog, and cooperation in the face of differences.
In that spirit of oneness, I congratulate the class of 2009.