Obama Commencement Speech at Notre Dame Echoed JFK's at American University

Can't we all just get along?


By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

One thought on Barack Obama's much discussed commencement speech at Notre Dame. People have dissected it for substance and policy angles (I especially commend my colleague Dan Gilgoff's analysis), especially as regards abortion. But it also struck me as significant in terms of being another step in his oft-stated, sometimes dismissed desire to change the way we debate things in politics.

It struck me that in his Notre Dame speech, Obama was trying to do for our domestic culture wars what John F. Kennedy tried to do for the Cold War 46 years ago when he delivered a commencement address at American University. Kennedy then argued that our competition with the Soviets did not have to be existential. He said:

If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. 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 future. And we are all mortal.

Almost a half-century later, JFK's sentiments may not seem revolutionary, but at the time they were. "Public cant about communist dangers in the fifties and sixties made it almost impossible for an American politician to make the sort of speech that Kennedy gave," the historian Robert Dallek later wrote. "It was a tremendously bold address that carried substantial risks."

Who knows, maybe in 50 years we'll look back at Obama's attempt to dial back the rhetoric of the culture war in the same way.

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