I have often compared President Obama's speeches to the old cliché about Chinese food: delicious and enjoyable when delivered, but so devoid of real nutrients that an hour later one is hungry again. In Obama's case, the missing nutrients are substance and honesty, and his commencement address in South Bend on Sunday was no exception.
As always, the President's rhetoric soared. His mellifluous voice and impeccable timing, his wry, seemingly self-deprecating sense of humor, and the talents of his outstanding team of speech writers were very much in evidence at the Joyce Center; his audience of graduating students and their families, faculty and the ever-present press were enthralled.
And as always, all that that high-flying rhetoric, all the bons mots, the personal anecdotes, and the appeals to “fair-mindedness” and other virtues sounded inspirational, but what did Obama really give us Sunday afternoon at Notre Dame?
Well, not much in the way of substance. Responding to all the controversy surrounding Fr. John Jenkins' invitation to speak at the commencement, the President reversed his earlier avowal not to discuss abortion in his speech. In fact, at least a third of the 30 minute talk was devoted to that controversy, but except for a plea for all sides to work together to seek ways to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, he offered no real solutions, admitting,
Now, understand — understand, Class of 2009, I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. Because no matter how much we may want to fudge it — indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory — the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.
Maybe he should have stuck to his original plan and not mentioned abortion at all.
The President's speeches are often as interesting for what he doesn't say as they are for what he does say, and the Notre Dame speech was no exception. Speaking about his early experiences working with Chicago's Catholic-sponsored Developing Communities Project and the inspiration he received from the work and from his co-workers, he told us, “Perhaps because I witnessed all of the good works their faith inspired them to perform, I found myself drawn not just to the work with the church; I was drawn to be in the church. It was through this service that I was brought to Christ.” Unmentioned were the name of the anti-white, anti-American church he actually joined, and its vicious, hate-mongering pastor, the infamous Jeremiah “God Damn America” Wright. One might argue that this was unnecessary, that we all know which church and what pastor he was referring to, and that is true, but a more honest individual, not wanting to reopen the controversy surrounding his church affiliation, would simply have not brought it up. However, Obama was speaking at a religious university, and wanted – needed – in his own mind at least, to show his Catholic audience that he too, is a God-fearing, church-going man; never mind the vast gulf between the Catholic Church and Jeremiah Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ.
One audience member, blogger Kaitlynn Riely, one of the graduating seniors, felt that Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins' speech introducing Obama actually upstaged the President's speech, and she may have a point. Said Ms. Reily:
Obama's message of dialogue and working together was well-delivered and well-received, but University President Father John Jenkins stole the show…In my time at Notre Dame, I've listened to quite a few of his speeches, but none of them were particularly memorable. In his introductory remarks Sunday, however, Jenkins was articulate, passionate and forceful in his defense of Notre Dame's invitation of Obama. It was the best speech I've ever heard Jenkins make.
It was, in the final analysis, a quintessential Obama speech. And I'm already hungry again.
But he did get his honorary degree.