The challenges to the class of '04

Posted: May 20, 2004 12:00 AM

'Tis the season not only of the 17-year cicada, but of the commencement address. Not every graduating class has the good or bad fortune (depending on the politics of the moment) to draw a president of the United States.

Students at Concordia University, a small Lutheran school in Mequon, Wis., just north of Milwaukee, weren't sure what to think when George W. Bush said he would be honored to accept an honorary degree from CU.

Because the announcement was made on April 1, many students thought it had to be an April Fool's joke. Some of the students had doubts up to the last minute; one of them asked the president: "Is it you, or is it the guy on 'Saturday Night Live'?"

The president's message, however, was not played for laughs. Most of the graduates, parents and guests were quickly persuaded that the long wait at metal detectors was worth it. The president no doubt chose Concordia for reasons including the political - he lost Wisconsin to Al Gore by two-tenths of a percentage point - but his speech was nevertheless more inspiring than most.

He appealed to idealism and realism as an active reflection of how character influences independent choices, a message particularly refreshing after a week of body blows to the moral character of the country.

"The great events of these historic times can seem remote, and beyond the control of individuals," he said. "Yet we have recently seen how much difference, for good or ill, the choices of individual men and women can make. In Iraq, the cruelty of a few has brought discredit to their uniform and embarrassment to our country.

"The consequences of their failures of character reach well beyond the walls of a prison. Yet those failures cannot diminish the honor and achievement of more than 200,000 (men and women) who have served in Iraq since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom."

He urged them to look at the whole picture, not merely dwell on the aberrations of the few. The fallout from the scandals in Abu Ghraib Prison makes a defense of America's generous nature difficult for young people. Such a defense is easy to dismiss as na? Pollyanna talk.

But a society must be measured by more than flaws and failures. America always answers when a nation big or small, dials 911 in the throes of devastation. (Indeed, who else is there?) America is the country willing, eager even, to help others confront tyranny, poverty, famine, disease, hurricane or earthquake: "The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world, it is the Almighty God's gift to all humanity."

Many Concordia graduates intend to enter the Christian ministry, and the president's references to God and America's moral mission to the Middle East aroused none of the sneers that are the fashion elsewhere. The president's message was well within the traditions not only of the founding fathers, but in the speeches of the greatest presidents who followed.

John F. Kennedy recalled in his inaugural address that the nation's revolutionary forbears brought to this continent "the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God." Harry S. Truman reminded us "that all men are created equal because they are created in the image of God." Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "As Americans, we go forward, in the service of our country, by the will of God."

The greatest presidential speech of all, delivered at Gettysburg when the wounds of war were still red and raw, included two words inserted spontaneously into the remarks that Abraham Lincoln scribbled on the back of an envelope on the train to Pennsylvania: "this nation under God."

Rarely are commencement speeches memorable. Who among us can remember very much, if anything, from our own? But sometimes the inspiration drives a lasting idea. President Bush told the Concordia class of '04 that they must confront hard realities but remain true to softer sensibilities; they must make tough choices as a nation and compassionate choices as individuals.

"Government can play many important roles, but it cannot take someone's hand, and be their friend," he says. "You have that power. If you follow this calling, you can help transform our society, one heart, one soul, at a time."

If this was bumbling, all our commencement speakers should be so bumbling.