President Obama's delivered the second conference address of his Presidency at Notre Dame on Sunday, May 17, 2009. The build-up to the speech saw fierce arguments about whether it was appropriate for a predominant abortion rights supporter to be honored at one of the nation's Premier Catholic institutions. Speculation about noisy off-campus rallies, student and faculty boycotts and other disruptions occupied cable-TV, the blogosphere and the Twitterverse.
Controversial and difficult situations often bring out the best in a speaker. Historic statements are often given in times of dissention and revolt. Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and JFK delivered memorable lines in the face of adverse circumstances. Churchill was not commenting on a European soccer match when he said "We shall fight them on the beaches."
One suspects that President Obama might have rather relished the opportunity to discuss the controversial issues of abortion and stem-cell research at this event.
His challenge as a speaker was to defuse the controversies and take the heat out of the moment. An analysis of the speech shows how he did this by forging a bond with the audience. He bridged the divide after openly acknowledging that it exists. Consider three examples of ways the speech found common ground with the audience.
All politicians love to quote letters from supporters. Obama chose to quote from someone who potentially targets him. A letter he received from a pro-life doctor caused him to change the words on his website characterizing abortion foes as "right-wing ideologies". By using a respected figure from the other camp, he called on the audience to "open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do … (and) discover at least the possibility of common Ground. " At the same time, he makes it clear that he did not change his position. And he did not expect the doctor to change his. In other words – agree to disagree.
" The soldier and the lawyer"
Obama quickly moves from a readily understandable pair of opposites to an illustration of why people might have different views on a complex moral argument. He does so in three steps. First, he contrasts the soldier and the lawyer – equally patriotic, but with different opinions on what is important to protect the country. Next, the gay activist and the evangelical pastor deploring HIV / AIDS across a cultural divide. Finally, he contrasts those who oppose stem cell research versus those who children could benefit from medical advances. By implication, our social roles determine our beliefs. There are no moral absolutes, only the relativism of equally valid views (itself a controversial statement to make at a Catholic University, but he does not go there.)
"A saintly man"
Cardinal Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago supported, as did Obama, community organizations on the South Side of Chicago. He was not an ideology. He and Obama were "bound together in the service of others". He was "always trying to bring people together; always trying to find common ground." And by implication, he's telling the audience, so is the person speaking these words.
From your house to my house
By far the most effective bond he built with the audience was acknowledging 91-year-old Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, Egypt "Father Ted", former president of Notre Dame and the sole survivor of Eisenhower's Civil Rights Commission. Hesburgh forged an agreement on a "twilight fishing trip" that led to the Civil Rights Act and, by implication, made it possible for a black man like Obama to be elected. Icing on the cake was the fact that the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision was handed down on May 17, 1954 – 55 years ago to the day.
Few speechwriters are granted such potent historical material to work with. By skillfully working the coincidence of the date, the historical figure in the audience and America's long struggle with racial inequality into the conclusion, Obama was guaranteed a speech that left them cheering.
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Ian D. Griffin