Over the course of the last century, current and former presidents of the United States, as well as those seeking the nation’s highest office, have used the University of Michigan — and all it stands for — as a grand stage from which to launch the policies of tomorrow.
From the Peace Corps to the Great Society to Gerald Ford’s campaign for the presidency, many of the landmark storylines of 20th-century American history have roots tracing back to speeches in Ann Arbor. The appearances, like almost any remarks given by a president, follow a careful calculus of location, content and tone — including those events portrayed as non-political send-offs for graduates.
In the last 50 years, three presidents have visited campus to deliver the University’s annual spring commencement address. Today, President Barack Obama will become the fourth. And over the course of its existence, the University has played host to 13 different United States presidents — many on multiple occasions.
But presidential visits to Ann Arbor haven’t been run-of-the-mill campaign stops for candidates to simply shake hands with voters or kiss babies. Many of these presidential visits have involved major national policy announcements with far-reaching implications.
Political Science Prof. Kenneth Kollman said the state of Michigan — and its flagship university — could be the perfect place for such an announcement from President Obama.
When John F. Kennedy stopped in Ann Arbor to spend the night on Oct. 14, 1960 while on the presidential campaign trail, he stood on the steps of the Michigan Union at 2 a.m. to address a crowd of nearly 5,000 students.
Addressing the assembled group, Kennedy encouraged students to give themselves to service in a way that would benefit developing countries — a concept that would lay the foundation for the Peace Corps.
President Lyndon B. Johnson made a similar major policy announcement when he spoke at the University’s 1964 spring commencement. The first sitting United States president to visit the University of Michigan, Johnson’s arrival in Ann Arbor was greeted with much fanfare.
When he arrived on campus on May 22, 1964, he disembarked from one of four identical Marine helicopters outside of Michigan Stadium and was personally welcomed by University President Harlan Hatcher.
Inside the Big House, Johnson was met with the thunderous applause of 80,000 spectators in attendance.
While Johnson came to Ann Arbor for the supposedly non-political affair of delivering the commencement address, according to an article in The Michigan Daily at the time, “his appearance was never free of political overtones and the peculiar mystique which always surrounds the president of the United States.”
The address would become a seminal moment in 20th-century United States history. From inside Michigan Stadium, Johnson laid out his vision for the Great Society — a series of social programs that the president would push over the course of his years in office that sought to eliminate poverty and reduce social injustice.
“Your imagination and your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth,” Johnson told the crowd. “For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.”
Before the speech Johnson had occasionally used the phrase “the Great Society,” but it wasn’t until that graduation ceremony that he made it the linchpin of his presidency.
He concluded as most commencement speeches do, with a call to action for the graduates in attendance.
“Those who came to this land sought to build more than just a new country. They sought a new world,” Johnson said. “So I have come here today to your campus to say that you can make their vision our reality.
So let us from this moment begin our work so that in the future men will look back and say, ‘It was then, after a long and weary way, that man turned the exploits of his genius to the full enrichment of his life.'”
Communications and Political Science Prof. Michael Traugott said in a February interview that he wouldn’t be surprised if Obama used his commencement speech to make a policy announcement similar to those of Johnson or Kennedy.
“I think that there’s a possibility and I think (the policy) would be related to the economy,” Traugott said.
Given that 2010 is going to be an “economy and jobs year” for the administration, Traugott said it seems logical that the University would be one of the few places to have the “honor” of hosting the president for commencement. He added that the White House has been supportive of the Michigan economy, noting Obama’s close relationship with U.S. Senators Carl Levin (D–Mich.) and Debbie Stabenow (D–Mich.) and the state’s Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Prof. Charles Shipan, chair of the Political Science department, said Obama’s visit to Ann Arbor does afford the president the opportunity to make a similar, big announcement.
Shipan said that with major policy initiatives like those of Kennedy and Johnson, presidents have the option of working with Congress to try and get the legislation passed or to make a major address regarding the initiative and let Congress handle the rest.
Shipan also emphasized that though they are often dubbed as non-political events, when a sitting or former president gives a commencement address it almost always has political implications.
President George H.W. Bush delivered the spring commencement address for the graduating class of 1991. In doing so, Bush was the third sitting president to ever visit the University and was the second sitting president to deliver a commencement address to a class of graduates in the Big House.
In his speech to graduates, Bush criticized what he classified as a growing need for “political correctness” that he said was being fostered at universities across the country.
“The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudices with new ones,” Bush told graduates at the time. “It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expression off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits.”
Bush also talked about how the spirit of freedom could help to better shape the country in the future.
“We must build a society in which people can join in common cause without having to surrender their identities,” Bush said. “You can lead the way. Share your thoughts and your experiences and your hopes and your frustrations. Defend others’ rights to speak. And if harmony be our goal, let’s pursue harmony, not inquisition.”
Bush called on the graduates to help carry the country to a more prosperous future.
“My vision for America depends heavily on you. You must protect the freedoms of enterprise, speech and spirit. You must strengthen the family. You must build a peaceful and prosperous future,” he said.
“We don’t need another Great Society with huge and ambitious programs administered by the incumbent few. We need a Good Society built upon the deeds of the many, a society that promotes service, selflessness, action.”
However, Bush’s remarks — many of which were meant to directly conflict with the initiatives set out by Johnson — were overshadowed by an emergency visit to the hospital just hours after he finished his address. After experiencing an irregular heartbeat and shortness of breath during a jog in Camp David following his keynote at the University, Bush spent the night in a hospital, where he was diagnosed with the thyroid disorder Graves’ disease.
Regardless of what Obama chooses to talk about today, Prof. Kollman said in an interview in February that the president will use the appearance as an opportunity to campaign for Democrats running in the midterm elections.
“He’s going to be in a big mode to do as well as he can for the Democrats and use the occasion to try to influence a lot of election races around the country, including in Michigan,” he said.
Doing so wouldn’t make Obama the first president to use political undertones in a commencement speech at the University, since Bush was gearing up for reelection during his commencement visit.
And President Gerald R. Ford, a University alum, made numerous visits to Ann Arbor during and after his presidency. In one of his most notable visits, the then-vice president delivered the spring commencement address. Three months later, Ford rose to the presidency when President Richard Nixon resigned.
He returned to the University in 1976 to launch his presidential campaign at Crisler Arena in front of a crowd that filled the entire venue. And though unsuccessful in that election bid, Ford would continue to return to the University for guest lectures, sporting events and other events — including a visit in 1976 to look on as his wife Betty delivered the winter commencement address.
Though he wasn’t running for office in 2007, former President Bill Clinton spoke to the graduating class as his wife, then-Senator Hillary Clinton, was locked in the midst of a heated primary battle with then-Senator Obama.
In his speech, Clinton emphasized the great period of opportunity that graduates were entering both for themselves and for society.
“You are living in one of the most exciting times in human history,” Clinton told the crowd of 59,000 alumni, parents and friends, as well as the 6,500 members of the class of 2007. “It is exploding with opportunity. It is bursting with knowledge.”
But, Clinton said, with that opportunity comes a great deal of civic duty in a world that is “unequal, unstable, and unsustainable.”
“Every time you do anything to give a poor village a clean water well, help children get basic health care, or offer an education in a poor country where just one year of schooling is worth another 10 percent of income per year for life, you help to make more partners and fewer adversaries,” he said.
While serious in content, Clinton’s speech had its light moments as well. After receiving his honorary degree from University President Mary Sue Coleman, Clinton was ready to highlight his wife’s presidential campaign.
“I am delighted to be given this degree by the University of Michigan’s first female president. Has a great ring, don’t you think?” he said.
While presidential visits to the University have taken both serious and, at times, humorous tones, Prof. Shipan said Obama’s choice to deliver a commencement address in Michigan was a calculated one.
Coming to the state with one of the worst economies in the country is a strategic move because the president can talk about the success of programs that were beneficial to Michigan like the auto industry bailout and the stimulus package, Shipan said. On the other hand, he noted that making such a public speech in the state could be a big risk for Obama.
“It’s a kind of risky thing for him to do because he’s going to a state with one of the lowest, if not the lowest, joblessness rates in the country,” Shipan said in February. “It’s a reminder that many of the problems he inherited when he stepped into office are there.”