Sunday, May 17, 2009

Barack Obama at Notre Dame

Today the president was at his persuasive and diplomatic best. Much will be written about his speech, but this story stands out as a keeper:

I stand here today, as president and as an African-American, on the 55th anniversary of the day that the Supreme Court handed down the decision in Brown v. the Board of Education. Brown was of course the first major step in dismantling the separate but equal doctrine, but it would take a number of years and a nationwide movement to fully realize the dream of civil rights for all of God's children. There were freedom rides and lunch counters and Billy clubs, and there was also a Civil Rights Commission appointed by President Eisenhower. It was the 12 resolutions recommended by this commission that would ultimately become law in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

There were six members of the commission. It included five whites and one African-American; Democrats and Republicans; two Southern governors, the dean of a Southern law school, a Midwestern university president, and your own Father Ted Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame. They worked for two years, and at times, President Eisenhower had to intervene personally since no hotel or restaurant in the South would serve the black and white members of the commission together. Finally, when they reached an impasse in Louisiana, Father Ted flew them all to Notre Dame's retreat in Land O' Lakes, Wis., where they eventually overcame their differences and hammered out a final deal.

Years later, President Eisenhower asked Father Ted how on Earth he was able to broker an agreement between men of such different backgrounds and beliefs. And Father Ted simply said that during their first dinner in Wisconsin, they discovered that they were all fishermen. And so he quickly readied a boat for a twilight trip out on the lake. They fished, and they talked, and they changed the course of history.

I will not pretend that the challenges we face will be easy, or that the answers will come quickly, or that all our differences and divisions will fade happily away. Life is not that simple. It never has been.

But as you leave here today, remember the lessons of Cardinal Bernardin, of Father Hesburgh, of movements for change both large and small. Remember that each of us, endowed with the dignity possessed by all children of God, has the grace to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we all seek the same love of family and the same fulfillment of a life well-lived. Remember that in the end, we are all fishermen.


The same Father Ted was among those in the audience, looking forward to his ninety-second birthday, the only survivor of the original Eisenhower commission. The university presented President Obama a copy of a photograph of Fr. Ted on the occasion of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as he stood with M.L.King singing "We Shall Overcome."

The courtesy and enthusiasm of the crowd was gracious and impressive.

4 comments:

Deron S. said...

It's true that we focus on our differences more than our similarities these days. We might all have different beliefs and ideas, but when push comes to shove we have each others' backs. I'd like to see us get to the point where it doesn't take a catastrophe to bring us together. That's the measure of a strong nation and a strong society.

I like to fish. I'm just not very good at it!

Hoots said...

...we focus on our differences more than our similarities these days.You put your finger on exactly the right point. America's main challenge is that we are one of history's most diverse societies and that same diversity which gives us our greatest strengths also underscores our differences more than our similarities. Not only is America more diverse, we are also among history's youngest experiments ever deliberately to embrace that quality.

Well actually we haven't embraced it all that enthusiastically. Slavery was part of the fabric of the society we call the "founding fathers." And they're not called fathers by accident since women were not allowed to vote until much later. Social progress is measured in very small increments that take generations to mature.

Deron S. said...

I have to question whether our two party system does more harm than good. Look at the divisiveness that it causes in our society. We spend a significant amount of time and resources defending our own positions, when we should be looking for the best of both sides. I think it stems from the competitive, independent spirit that makes up our DNA.

Hoots said...

I see your point, but looked at from another angle, the two-party system forces us to settle a multitude of possibly more contentious differences and settle on one or two at a time. Compared with the coalition-building that nearly cripples parliamentary systems the two party system doesn't seem all that bad. I always liked Churchill's remark that the Yanks always end up making the right choice... after they have tried everything else.

I like that Obama has the nerve to walk into a lion's den knowing he has a hard sell. In the case of abortion he seeks a "middle ground."

I predict that when the dust settles the middle ground will start one hour before conception and end with the first trimester of pregnancy. That time frame is wide enough to cover contraception and unexpected pregnancies, after which ("viability")there will be legal protection for future voters and tax payers about to be born.