Presidents and Precedents

Lessons from legends and precedents from presidents are the stuff of epic commencement speeches. My hope is that in our church and in our country the same themes of compassion, integrity, and accountability will help us to rise above the politics of anger and division with diplomacy and decorum.

It should not have surprised me that the Concordia University Wisconsin community assumed that I was just kidding. It was, after all, April 1, and folks everywhere were on high alert for April Fool's Day spoofs and gags. Except this was no joke.

The previous day I had received a phone call from the White House. They were pleased to tell me that President George W. Bush had accepted my invitation to address our graduates at the May 2004 Commencement. Because of his crowded schedule, however, it was necessary to move the ceremony forward by a day from Saturday to Friday, May 14. That seemed a small concession to me, and so I readily agreed and promised we would quickly let everybody know to change their plans since the event was only six weeks away. “No can do,” was the White House reply, “no announcement until we give you the green light. Say nothing to anyone until further notice.” 

Evidently, I neglected to mention to White House staff that a dozen or more people already knew there was a distinct possibility George W. Bush would come for our graduation. They knew because I had already told them. Let’s just say I am a rather transparent person. This was a bit of a dilemma. The next morning, I gathered that group of over-informed insiders together in what I described as a “double top secret” meeting. The good news was the President of the United States of America was coming to graduation; the bad news was that we had to inform everyone of a change of date without accompanying explanation. Undoubtedly, many families had made travel plans and hotel reservations.  What were we going to tell them?

Frankly, I do not recall what was decided. Although everyone was sworn to secrecy, one of my colleagues asked me how long I supposed it would be before news leaked? Not 10 minutes later I had a request from one of the local Milwaukee news affiliates asking for confirmation that George W. Bush was coming to Concordia! Fortunately, it was not my team but the White House that contacted the media. We had our green light. Immediately, I began to formulate a campus-wide email with this extraordinary message: President George W. Bush will be our speaker for Commencement, and, of necessity, our ceremony will be on Friday rather than the traditional Saturday afternoon — dated April 1, 2004. April Fools? The next morning, when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel put this story on the front page, all doubts were erased.

It took a lot of preparation for the President to visit our campus. That is an understatement. The logistics were incredible — security, communications, invitations, staging, seating, and the list went on. The Friday afternoon deluge did not dampen the spirits of the capacity crowd that waited for hours in the R. John Buuck Field House. When the Concordia band finally offered its well-rehearsed rendition of “Hail to the Chief” as George W. Bush took the stage, the atmosphere was electric. The President of the United States of America delivered a fine address tailored specifically to our graduates. Nobody who was there will soon forget that day.

The words of George W. Bush continue to have resonance for our country, and it is no reach to say that his encouragement is also applicable for each of us:

“America rejects the ethic of sink or swim. America rejects social Darwinism because strength is not the same as worth. Our greatest failures as a nation have come when we lost sight of our compassionate ideals — in slavery, in segregation, and in every wrong that has denied the value and dignity of life. Our greatest strength as a nation is that we bravely face our flaws and do our best to make things right. Our greatest successes as a nation have come when we broadened the circle of protection and inclusion. And this work is not finished. We will press on until every person shares in the promise of our country.”

— “America Needs Your Heart,” Commencement Address, President George W. Bush at Concordia University Wisconsin, 14 May 2004.

Compassionate ideals, facing our flaws in order to make things right, broadening the circle and including others — these are themes that matter even 18 years later.

For several years, almost all graduation speakers who followed made some reference to the fact that President Bush had delivered his message at Concordia before them. His was a tough act to follow — the President established an extraordinary precedent. A few years later, in May 2008, we hit another home run when Henry Aaron agreed to be our speaker.

When I was a kid, Hank Aaron was my hero. Inarguably, he was one of the all-time greatest baseball players and was a sports icon in Milwaukee. He led the Braves to the city’s only World Series championship in 1957. I was glued to the television as a boy in 1974 when Aaron broke the legendary Babe Ruth’s home run record. I can’t speak for everybody else but having him at Concordia was a particular thrill for me. 

Hank’s arrival to Concordia, while lacking the pomp and pageantry of the Bush commencement, nevertheless occurred at a particularly interesting moment. Earlier that baseball season Barry Bonds eclipsed Aaron’s home run record — but under a cloud of controversy because of his use of steroids to enhance his performance. In a press conference on campus before his graduation speech, Hank was peppered with questions about his take on Bonds breaking his record. It would have been easy for him to criticize. Plenty of precedent for that from all corners. No one would have begrudged Hank Aaron sniping about Bonds’ behavior. Instead, he was a gentleman and took the high road. He complimented Bonds for his marvelous career and wished him well. Hank was a humble hero.

In his speech, Hank urged Concordia’s graduates to “keep swinging,” when they experienced difficulties or defeat. He added, “This is advice from an old man who has been a lot of places, seen a lot of things. Be careful before you make choices. Avoid shortcuts. They are quick fixes and unrewarding.” As a youngster, Aaron learned from his parents, “If we made bad choices, we had to suffer the consequences.” Did he have Barry Bonds in mind? Perhaps, but Henry Aaron modeled diplomacy whether his audience was the press or our graduates. He made his point without demonizing the man.

George W. Bush and Henry Aaron came to Concordia as world figures, and we were honored to welcome them. Each of them inspired his listeners with high-minded encouragement to live lives of compassion, integrity, and accountability. Do we have the courage to “bravely face our flaws and do our best to make things right,” to “broaden the circle of protection and inclusion … to press on until every person shares in the promise,” to “keep swinging” rather than settling into a slump? Lessons from legends and precedents from presidents are the stuff of epic commencement speeches. My hope is that in our church and in our country the same themes of compassion, integrity, and accountability will help us to rise above the politics of anger and division with diplomacy and decorum. Let that become our precedent.


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Patrick Ferry in his officePatrick Ferry in his office