Commencement: Truman, Nixon, and Johnson—Defending Presidential Reputations

The president’s annual address to graduates has been an insufficiently studied facet of political communication. This owes to its unpredictable framework is based in tradition, as opposed to law. Unlike the constitutionally prescribed annual State of the Union address, no legal framework obliges the president to deliver parting words to college graduates. Nonetheless, ever since President Wilson gave the first commencement address to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1914, presidential commencement addresses have provided clues to a sitting president’s political ideology.

If anything, latter-term Presidential commencement speeches have become a stump for a sitting president to justify and defend their notable policy enactments. Similar to previewing and advocating a policy, a president may use the commencement podium to justify a policy already passed. Certainly, a president must display significant ethos for the audience to believe the president’s message.[1]

Harry Truman at the University of Missouri, 1950

In June 1950, Harry S. Truman addressed the University of Missouri in his home state. By the time he addressed graduates, the Marshall Plan had already been passed and was making economic headway in Europe. Truman defined and described the progress by citing:

The nations of Western Europe, with the Marshall Plan aid, are setting new records of production and approaching the restoration of prewar standards of living. Industrial production in Western Europe has increased 30 percent in the last 2 years. The diet of the people there has been restored almost to the prewar level. Furthermore, the countries of Western Europe have been able to get their national finances on a sounder basis, and to obtain sufficient goods so that they could lift most of their rationing and price controls. They have reduced trade barriers and have increased trade among themselves by 50 percent in the last 2 years. As a result, there has been a great revival of faith in freedom and hope for the future among the Western European countries. The numbers and the influence of Communists within their borders have been steadily receding. In the last 2 years, the Communists have received progressively fewer votes in every election held in the Marshall Plan countries.[2]

 

When Truman addressed the graduates, the public at large worried about the high stakes of $13 billon against the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $258 billion. Thus, since the Marshall Plan’s effects were well underway, it was Truman’s goal by that point to help alleviate the general public’s fears.  Truman’s larger aim, as Howard H. Martin put it, “was to sustain public understanding that keeping the peace demands the cost of ‘defensive armaments’ and ‘constructive development.’”[3]Truman’s speech has gone down in history as a success because the U.S. public cooperated with the terms of the Marshall Plan. Because of this, the Marshall Plan was able to revitalize the European economy.

Richard Nixon at the U.S. Naval Academy, 1974

On June 5, 1974, just two months prior to resigning the Presidency, Richard Nixon gave what would be his final commencement address at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. Unlike Truman, Nixon was unpopular at this point in his presidency and was at the brink of impeachment. The Watergate scandal was already disintegrating the foundation of Nixon’s Presidency. Five days prior, Nixon was ordered to surrender the audio tapes detailing his involvement in the Watergate scandal. Within one month, in the landmark Supreme Court case U.S. v. Nixon, the court unanimously decided that Nixon should indeed turn over the tapes. Adding to further humiliation was that all of the judges he appointed to the Supreme Court—including Justice William Rehnquist, and Chief Justice Warren Burger—refused to come to his defense.

            Amidst the political turmoil, Nixon remained emotionally strong at the podium. Aware of impending impeachment, Nixon knew that his good reputation, as well as his ethos, was virtually gone. However, since Nixon was a lawyer himself, he was keenly aware that modes of persuasion were only one way to bring about unity. Other rhetorical methods—including epideictic oratory—could be used. With this in mind, Nixon decided to recall the many historically significant aspects of his presidency. He recalled:

When we came into office in 1969, this Administration faced a more complex, a more challenging, and yet, in some ways, a more promising world situation than that which existed in the post-World War II era. While we could not and will not abdicate our responsibilities as the most powerful nation in the free world, it was apparent that the time had come to reassess those responsibilities. This was the guiding purpose of the Nixon Doctrine,[4] a doctrine which says that those we help to enjoy the benefits of freedom should bear a fair share of the burden of its defense as well.[5]

 

Nixon’s speech, as well as the venue it was delivered at, was the same as when Woodrow Wilson gave the very first presidential commencement address exactly 60 years prior to that day. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that the main theme of Nixon’s commencement speech was history. Nixon’s Presidency was historically ground-breaking during his first term—presiding over the first men on the moon in July 1969, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in December 1970, and including the first presidential visit to a diplomatically reclusive China in February 1972. Nixon was popular during his first term, and won a landslide victory against Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election.

However, his popularity quickly faded amidst Watergate. Nixon realized that the best way to handle the turmoil was to focus broadly on the positive aspects of his presidency up to that point. One of the most remarkably effective words that Nixon used in his speech was right at the beginning—using the word “we.” Regardless of a graduate’s political affiliation, it was clear that Nixon wanted to bring unity during a time of political crisis. In creating unity from the beginning, he was able to summarize just how far the country had come since he assumed the presidency in January 1969.

Lyndon B. Johnson at Texas State University—San Marcos

Nixon’s predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson, used nearly the same rhetorical techniques in light of similar political conditions. On August 24, 1968, President Johnson addressed the summer commencement exercises at his alma mater, Southwest Texas State College.[6]Like Truman (and to a lesser extent, Nixon), Johnson was positive that he was a “lame duck.” On March 31st of the same year, he announced that he would not seek re-election. Johnson tied in the years of his presidency to general American themes. He remarked:

Let us see things as they are, both the somber facts in America, and the signs of hope in America. Let us reflect, as we begin the attacks and the arguments, upon one simple fact: America works, and the American political system works. In the past 5 years, this Nation has gone through some very turbulent times. But in those years, those 5 years, we have lifted 10 million people out of poverty. In that brief time, America has launched a program of Medicare for 20 million older citizens. In that time, the American Nation has cleared away most of the legal barriers to equal treatment in jobs, in public accommodations, and in voting.[7]

 

Like many parts of a well-written commencement speech, Johnson began broadly, and then proceeded to more specific supporting details. In this case, the specifics were statistics because they recalled the most historic tenets of his plan for a “Great Society.” However, given the tumultuous socioeconomic backdrop of American society during his presidency, a question emerges: Was Johnson justified in mentioning all of these statistics to make people think positively about him? One could answer this both ways. While he did accomplish all of these objectives, he left the presidency with glaring unpopularity because of how he dealt with the Vietnam War.

Conclusion

With the exception of the one-term George H.W. Bush, the previous presidents we have examined have all defined their policies towards the beginning of their presidency. Thus, the main question for presidential commencement addresses in the latter-half of a presidency is: How does a president want to be remembered by the next generation? Certainly, it is no accident that the president addresses college graduates, who represent this next generation. Regardless of the policy that they are trying to defend, the universal goal of any president is to build unity amongst the people, including those who are neutral or negative to their views.

 

 

 

[1]Earl A. Moore. "Confessions of a Commencement Speaker," Peabody Journal of Education 28, no. 6 (May 1951): 335.

[2]"Commencement Address at the University of Missouri. June 9, 1950.” http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=13522#ixzz1KxdNhz2C accessed April 29, 2011).

[3]Howard H. Martin. "Presidents in Academe: Changing Uses of Commencement.” Presidential

Studies Quarterly15 no. 3 (Summer, 1985): 516. .

[4]The Nixon Doctrine was announced by President Nixon at a conference in Guam on July 25, 1969. Nixon announced that U.S. allies were expected to take care of their own military defense needs, but could call upon the U.S. for additional resources. Given the location of its announcement, it is also referred to as the Guam Doctrine.

[5]"Remarks at Commencement Ceremonies at the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland. June 5, 1974." http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=4236#axzz1WbBkQIw9 (accessed August 31, 2011).

[6]President Johnson’s alma mater has gone through several name changes. When it opened in 1903, it was known as Southwest Texas State Normal School. From 1918-1923, the school was named Southwest Texas State Normal College. In 1923, the name was changed for the second time to Southwest Texas State Teachers College. For the next ten years starting in 1959, the school was called Southwest Texas State College. In 1969, the name was changed for a fourth time to Southwest Texas State University. In 2003, the school adopted its current name, Texas State University—San Marcos.

[7]"Address at the Summer Commencement Exercises of Southwest Texas State College. August 24, 1968 http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29092#ixzz1KxYe1I00." (accessed April 29, 2011).