The chips were down at Notre Dame yesterday, and I was there, having done some consulting work for ND's communication people, and begged a press pass to see President Obama deliver the most angst-ridden commencement address in history.
I drove past smiling people holding posters of bloody, dead fetuses onto a sunny and peaceful campus.
Inside the arena, I saw bellowing people stand and try to disrupt the speech. They were drowned out by most of the 1,200 graduates, shouting back, "We are ND," in defense of the president.
Young, mostly white midwestern Catholics, fiercely defending the African American president of the United States.
The president of the United States, who communicates like this:
… I stand here today, as President and as an African American, on the 55th anniversary of the day that the Supreme Court handed down the decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Now, Brown was of course the first major step in dismantling the
"separate but equal" doctrine, but it would take a number of years and
a nationwide movement to fully realize the dream of civil rights
for all of God's children. There were freedom rides and lunch counters
and Billy clubs, and there was also a Civil Rights Commission appointed
by President Eisenhower. It was the 12 resolutions recommended by this
commission that would ultimately become law in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
There were six members of this commission. It included five whites and
one African American; Democrats and Republicans; two Southern
governors, the dean of a Southern law school, a Midwestern university president, and your own Father Ted Hesburgh, .
So they worked for two years, and at times, President Eisenhower had to
intervene personally since no hotel or restaurant in the South would
serve the black and white members of the commission together. And
finally, when they reached an impasse in Louisiana, Father Ted flew
them all to Notre Dame's retreat in Land OLakes, Wisconsin—where they eventually overcame their differences and hammered out a final deal.
And years later, President Eisenhower asked Father Ted how on Earth he
was able to broker an agreement between men of such different
backgrounds and beliefs. And Father Ted simply said that during their
first dinner in Wisconsin, they discovered they were all fishermen. And
so he quickly readied a boat for a twilight trip out on the lake. They
fished, and they talked, and they changed the course of history.
I will not pretend that the challenges we face will be easy, or
that the answers will come quickly, or that all our differences and
divisions will fade happily away—because life is not that simple. It
never has been. But as you leave here today … remember that each of us, endowed with the dignity possessed by all
children of God, has the grace to recognize ourselves in one another;
to understand that we all seek the same love of family, the same
fulfillment of a life well lived. Remember that in the end, in some way
we are all fishermen.
If nothing else, that knowledge should give us faith that
through our collective labor, and God's providence, and our willingness
to shoulder each other's burdens, America will continue on its precious
journey towards that more perfect union.
After the speech, I overheard the mother of a graduate tell a reporter she walked out and stood in the lobby while Obama spoke.
"He speaks no truth to me at all," she said.
I tried to muster the usual fear and loathing. It wouldn't come. Instead, I shrugged, out of pity for a poor old woman who's been pushed to the side by progress. By legitimate, honest-to-goodness progress.
My habit is to look at everything and see how much better it ought to be. On this sunny Sunday I couldn't help but look at everything and see how much better it already is.