Trump’s Commencement Addresses Break the Mold

Most presidents are studiously nonpartisan at college graduations, often taking the opportunity to make important policy statements. Trump, not surprisingly, is different.

President Trump waves after giving the commencement address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. on May 17, 2017.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
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George E. Condon Jr.
May 24, 2018, 8 p.m.

When President Trump goes to the U.S. Naval Academy on Friday to give his first commencement address of the year, he gets a second chance to show that he can master what has been one of the most important weapons in any president’s rhetorical arsenal.

He needs a second chance because his debut on the graduation stage last year fell so short of what his predecessors in the White House attempted when they traveled to the nation’s campuses. In a presidency that often has broken the mold, Trump’s two commencement addresses last year were just one more example of him defying the norms of his office.

For the past 100 years, 17 presidents have given some of their most important addresses at these occasions. In 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt went to the University of Virginia to give a powerful indictment of isolationism and a sober warning about the spreading world war. In 1948, Harry Truman went to the University of California to affirm his resolve to stand up to Soviet belligerence. In 1953, Dwight Eisenhower went to Dartmouth to powerfully denounce “book burners” and, without naming him, Joseph McCarthy. In 1963, John F. Kennedy went to American University to call for a new approach to the Cold War.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson went to Michigan to outline his Great Society and in 1965 went to Howard to commit the nation to civil rights. In 1981, Ronald Reagan went to Notre Dame to denounce communism as a “bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.” In 2000, Bill Clinton went to the Coast Guard Academy to examine the impact of globalization. In 2002, George W. Bush went to West Point to make the case for preemptive war. And in 2016, Barack Obama went to Howard to assess race relations half a century after LBJ’s address there.

Some of the speeches diminished in importance as the nation moved on to fresh challenges. Some failed to meet unreasonable goals—Clinton, for example, failed to spark the national “conversation on race” he thought would follow his 1997 address at the University of California, San Diego. But all provided important roadmaps to administration priorities. All were serious attempts at sparking public discussion. And all followed certain unwritten rules—most importantly, avoid any hint of partisanship.

Until President Trump last year.

In his first year in office, Trump gave only two addresses, fewer than most presidents give each year. Neither broke any policy ground or offered any fresh insight into the new administration’s policies. Neither saw the president stick to script. And neither seemed anything beyond what he was saying in his big rallies. At Liberty University, he exulted at the size of his crowd and noted that “a lot of people are very happy” he is president. Looking back at his election, he gushed, “boy oh boy, you voted, you voted.”

Then, at the Coast Guard Academy, he came as close to partisanship as any president has at a military academy, talking about his election. His most-remembered line was a plaint of personal grievance, telling the cadets, “Look at the way I’ve been treated lately, especially by the media. No politician in history—and I say this with great surety—has been treated worse or more unfairly.”

This year, the White House has refused to say if Trump will go to any campus other than Annapolis on Friday and rebuffed repeated efforts to discuss their approach to commencement addresses. The contrast, though, is clear with how other White Houses see them. Unlike Trump, other presidents viewed commencement addresses strategically.

“These are the crown jewels of a rhetorical presidency,” said Curt Smith, a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. “You have the Inaugural and the acceptance speech. Those are in a league of their own. But then comes commencement addresses and the State of the Union.”

No president gave more commencement addresses and none used them more strategically than the elder Bush. In 1991, he went to eight schools and five of the addresses were meant to be read together to provide a comprehensive outline of how the president viewed the emerging post-Soviet world. Smith said those speeches stemmed from an Oval Office meeting at the beginning of the year. With the president presiding, the entire speechwriting team and the chief of staff thrashed out what Bush wanted to say. They then spent months fleshing out the ideas.

Similar early-in-the-year planning sessions were held in almost every White House to guarantee the commencement addresses would have heft. Until Trump. “The Trump White House has no strategic vision for politics or policy,” said George C. Edwards III, Jordan chair in presidential studies at Texas A&M and editor of Presidential Studies Quarterly. “The president simply responds to whatever comes up, whether a personal criticism or the act of a foreign power.”

Smith called Trump’s lament to the Coast Guard Academy “just unseemly,” but tempered his criticism. “His feeling of persecution may be validated,” he said. “But for him to do that last year was entirely too soon for that and was inappropriate in a commencement address at a military academy.” He held out hope that Trump would bounce back this year after “getting his sea legs.”

The Trump White House faces another challenge in planning its commencement addresses. No president since Richard Nixon has been so deeply unpopular with young people, severely limiting the number of campuses that would be hospitable to him. All presidents stack the deck, almost always going to schools in states they won in the election even in good years. But in bad years — when the polls are sagging — the choices get more restricted after the obligatory visit to one of the military academies.

Bedeviled by the war in Vietnam and campus protests, Lyndon Johnson’s commencement addresses after 1965 brought him to the Capitol Page School (three times), Texas Christian University, Glassboro State College, and his alma mater, Southwest Texas State College. Shadowed by Watergate, Richard Nixon in his second term went only to Florida Technological University and Oklahoma State. Both Johnson and Nixon feared disruptions at most large campuses.

It is a legitimate fear today for Trump. The latest CNN poll, taken May 2-5, shows Trump’s job approval among respondents aged 18-34 at only 31 percent and disapproval at 60 percent—far worse than his numbers in any other age group. “The president only addresses audiences that are prone to supporting him,” said Edwards. “I don’t think he can handle rejection, and the students at most major colleges and universities would show their displeasure with his policies.”

Graphic by John Irons
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