Some years ago, a friend who worked in marketing for a large company was told to try to recruit the NASCAR racing driver, Richard Petty, to speak at an upcoming event.
My friend managed to wrangle an appointment with Petty at his North Carolina home. Once there, he laid out his presentation, telling Petty about the event and why he should speak there.
After my friend had finished, Petty looked at him for a long minute and then drawled, “Boy, you talk pretty good. Why don’t you do it?”
After eight years with an American president who famously mangled the language, we now have a president who also talks “pretty good.”
Last week, Barack Obama gave two masterful addresses to graduates of Arizona State University and Notre Dame. Both of them offered heaping portions of food for thought, and both framed ideas in ways that should inspire Americans to do some “pretty good” talking with each other.
As everyone knows, Arizona State chose not to award an honorary degree to Obama because “his body of work is yet to come.” The president accepted that snub gracefully and told students and others who saw or read the speech that completing our bodies of work is a process that all of us are engaged in.
“In all seriousness,” he said, “I come here not to dispute the suggestion that I haven’t yet achieved enough in my life. I come to embrace it; to heartily concur; to affirm that one’s title, even a title like President, says very little about how well one’s life has been led – and that no matter how much you’ve done, or how successful you’ve been, there’s always more to do, more to learn, more to achieve.”
In the remarkable speech that followed, he urged his listeners to examine their core values, both personal ones and our collective values as a nation, and adapt them in ways that emphasize service to others and building a more just and visionary society.
The timing could not be better for that kind of introspection. As the president told the ASU graduates: “… We gather here tonight in times of extraordinary difficulty, for the nation and the world. The economy remains in the midst of a historic recession, the result, in part, of greed and irresponsibility that rippled out from Wall Street and Washington, as we spent beyond our means and failed to make hard choices. We are engaged in two wars and a struggle against terrorism. The threats of climate change, nuclear proliferation, and pandemic defy national boundaries and easy solutions.”
“… As a nation, we’ll need a fundamental change of perspective and attitude. It is clear that we need to build a new foundation – a stronger foundation – for our economy and our prosperity, rethinking how we educate our children, and care for our sick, and treat our environment.”
Unlike Arizona State, Notre Dame did award Obama an honorary degree. But that decision stirred a bitter controversy because of the president’s continued support for legal abortion. (For the record, he supports abortion rights while also favoring other steps to make the procedure rare.)
As at ASU, Obama told the graduates that this generation will need to devise new responses to the nation’s crises. “This is the generation,” he said, “that must find a path back to prosperity and decide how we respond to a global economy that left millions behind even before this crisis hit – an economy where greed and short-term thinking were too often rewarded at the expense of fairness, and diligence, and an honest day’s work.”
But, in outlining the challenges to be met, he cited an additional one: “… We must find a way to reconcile our ever-shrinking world with its ever-growing diversity – diversity of thought, of culture, and of belief.”
From there, much of the speech addressed the abortion issue head on. Even in that debate, the president pointed out, foes and supporters of abortion rights should be able to find considerable common ground and be able to work together for good.
But, he acknowledged candidly, not all of our divisions are reconcilable.
“The question, then,” he said, “is how do we work through these conflicts? Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort? As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?”
As all of us who enter into those vigorous debates know — or even as those who have watched the “debates” on Fox News or MSNBC or, for that matter, in Congress know — the answers to those kinds of questions do not always come easily. But the president did not suggest that his listeners shirk from debate. He did, however, make a suggestion about the approach we should take as we frame our discussions. When talking about the serious issues that divide us, we should remember to treat the sincere views of others with respect.
So let’s talk. If possible, let’s talk “pretty good.” And, as much as we can, let’s talk, as the president urged, with “Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words.”
Obama’s speech at Arizona State:
Obama’s speech at Notre Dame: