Advice To Grads From Presidents Past

Most commencement addresses follow the same formula: Start with a joke, give some advice, say congrats and go. But when a president is the graduation speaker, the address can make history. Rebecca Roberts reviews some notable presidential commencements with Gerhard Peters from the American Presidency Project at the University of California.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Barack Obama isn't the first president to tackle big issues in a commencement speech.

Former President JOHN F. KENNEDY: I have therefore chosen this time and place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds, the truth too rarely perceived, and that is the most important topic on earth: peace.

ROBERTS: John F. Kennedy, arguing for a nuclear test ban at the American University graduation in 1953. That speech also included this famous line.

Former President KENNEDY: For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children's futures, and we are all mortal.

Gerhard Peters has collected a lot of these speeches at the University of California's American Presidency Project. He says just about every president starts with the compulsory advice and congratulations to the graduates.

Mr. GERHARD PETERS (American Presidency Project, University of California): But after that, a presidential commencement address is usually an opportunity for a president to articulate a broad theme. In the case of John F. Kennedy, this was an opportunity to stop in its tracks the acceleration of the arms race.

ROBERTS: Two years later, Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, spoke at Howard University, a historically black school here in Washington, D.C. He chose that audience to lay out his vision of the great society.

(Soundbite of applause)

Former President LYNDON JOHNSON: Freedom is the right to share, share fully and equally, an American society.

ROBERTS: And after September 11th, George W. Bush used his commencement speech at West Point to help define the Bush doctrine.

Former President GEORGE W. BUSH: If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long.

Presidential scholar Gerhard Peters says Jimmy Carter's 1977 speech, also at Notre Dame, backfired on him.

Former President JIMMY CARTER: We are now free of that inordinate fear of communism.

Mr. PETERS: He certainly lived to regret those words just a little over two years later, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.